30 May 2009


I am baffled. Everywhere I turn, it seems, I read or hear some opinionated commentator either attacking or defending President Obama's nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the upcoming vacancy on the United States Supreme Court.

The degree of abject ignorance on the issue of what a judge does and what, beyond that, an appellate judge does is astounding. What's more, even seemingly bright people who should know better resort to canned, irrelevant arguments. They have formed their opinions before all the facts are in. Their feelings lead.

This is precisely the opposite of how a judicial opinion is formed. These knee-jerk commentators, however, assume that because that's how they work (they form their opinions based on how they feel about things [politics, culture, self-interest, etc.] and then argue based on their beliefs—ignoring or misconstruing facts that provide counter-examples to their opinions) they assume that because that's how they operate that's how judges work, how they decide cases. This is another species (the political variety) of the obstinate ignorance I blogged about just below.

I recall a series of questions on the LSAT about credibility. They went something like this:
Who is more credible? 
  1. a conservative plumber expounding on the debt financing crisis of the 21st Century; 
  2. a liberal clergy person explaining particle physics and String Theory; 
  3. a lesbian chemist discussing theories of moral reasoning; 
  4. a spokesman for the oil industry arguing against proposed environmental regulations; 
  5. a famous actor who plays a doctor on TV asking you to purchase a certain medication; 
  6. a white journalist tracing the effects on former slaves of Reconstruction legal decisions; or
  7. a Mexican historian describing the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam among Lee's generals.
Obviously, this is only an approximation of the type of question, but it is illustrative. The point is:  there are relative degrees of credibility.

People who might really know how to read and critique a poem or a novel, or how to launch an effective PR campaign, or how to attack liberal politicians on TV are taking sides on the Sotomayor nomination—mostly attacking her. She used such-and-such words in a speech ten years ago. She is ethnic, maybe even Mexican. She belonged to some community group I know nothing about. She is a woman. She has a funny name. She eats funny foods. She is not like me. She is empathetic.

It's preposterous. Plain and simple: None of these flacks knows how to read a judicial or appellate opinion. They have no concept of legal reasoning. They have never tried to extract a rule or principle of law from a diverse or even contradictory set of cases. They don't know how a set of facts is properly established in a trial setting. They couldn't apply a statute or rule or even an established legal principle to a complex fact pattern, much less decide between applicable but conflicting legal or statutory or statutory or Constitutional priorities. They have not critically read all the historical decisions of the Supreme Court on any given Constitutional issue. Nor, most likely, has any of them clerked for Judge Sotomayor or argued before her or observed her courtroom manner or read all of her opinions (including the arguments that were before her).

Yet they are attacking her.

I personally have never argued before Judge Sotomayor, though I have prepared briefs for senior lawyers who have. I have read any number of her opinions (often in preparation for writing just such a brief so I could see what sort of arguments she found persuasive).  However, I simply don't have an opinion about her fitness for the Court. As I indicated in my previous post, this is why I could never be a pundit or a TV talking head. I don't form knee-jerk opinions based on my own predispositions or political predilections.

I suspect, however, because President Obama was famously a professor of Constitutional Law at one of the premier law schools in this country, that he has a sense of the caliber of her judicial mind. (I could never give the MBA president the same benefit of the doubt for reasons I've articulated a number of times in this blog. His picks were more overtly political in nature [think Harriet Myers], I felt. He wanted certain outcomes from his picks. Obama, if I read him right, is more interested in the process and the legal reasoning than the outcomes—which, to the uninitiated is the heart and soul of the law! Something they can never quite comprehend.)

Eventually, some commentators will appear who've made the effort to read all, or at least most of, her decisions. There will be attorneys who've argued before her—winners and losers. There will be her colleagues from the Southern District of New York and on the 2d Circuit Court of Appeals (arguably the pre-eminent such court in the country) who may or may not have something to say about the way she has dealt with them on the panels and en banc, who understand how she approaches the decision-making process. It is important to listen to such arguably quite credible sources—especially the winners who are against her and the losers who are for her and don't have some sort of political axe to grind.  Read some of her opinions (you can find many of them on line).  Listen to the Senate hearings.  Take all points of view into consideration. Try to understand the rationales of both sides. Assess their relative credibility. Judge for yourself.

Just recognize, a judicial opinion is not like "I like Coke better than Pepsi" or "I pull for the Tar Heels" or "I always vote Republican" or "I hate Winnipeg."  It's a lot more complicated and involves a process in which both sides on any given issue have had an opportunity to give it their best shot in an adversarial proceeding; and the judge has taken their relative contributions into consideration, weighed the arguments against the appropriate legal standards, and rendered a decision with the sort of legal reasoning that can be applied again and again (except, of course, in cases like Bush v. Gore, but that's a post for another day).  And those who don't know this or don't understand this or refuse to acknowledge this—they are simply not credible, no matter how loud they shout or blog or Tweet.

Ignorance of the law is no excuse.

Btw: If you're interested, here's an essay by George Lakoff concerning that whole "empathy" matter. I've posted plenty about agápē and Max Scheler and humanism and the (un-)wisdom of crowds, among other things, if you want to know my own view.

UPDATE: Here's a great piece by another of my favorites, Stanley Fish, on this issue. Sorry I missed it the first time around. He makes the distinction between a decision that seems to be technically legally correct and yet seems unjust and one that is just but doesn't necessarily appear to follow the legal precedents strictly. On the surface, this is a valid distinction. But at the time many of the law review articles he cites were written, there simply weren't that many precedents to draw on. Since, say 1984, we've witnessed an explosion of case law of almost geometric proportions. Frankly, any good judge can find a precedent or even a thread of legal reasoning that conforms with his notion of justice; you just have to know how to frame the issue and do your research. What's more, a really good judge looks at all the precedents and then attempts to derive sound principles from them, especially where there are conflicting rulings—asking: what principle are these rulings attempting to inculcate?—and then applies the principle (not the strict legal precedent) to the case at hand. Harmonizing conflicting or even hostile legal rulings thus is a high-powered legal skill. Having a sound, consistent, and coherent set of principles and knowing how they apply and, importantly, when to apply them is the mark a great legal mind. And this, as I've argued above, is quite different from simply having a knee-jerk political reaction ("I'm pro-business", "I'm anti-abortion", "I'm anti-gun control", "I'm pro-States Rights"—that's you, Justice Thomas) and basing one's decisions on one's predilections or interests.

28 May 2009

Articles of Faith: "twenty centuries of stony sleep"

This is a continuation of the thoughts from my previous post.

First, I'd like to thank the folks who commented for their considered responses. (BDR didn't leave a forwarding url, but you can check out his site here)

Second, as much as I care about my loved ones and the condition of their ignorance, I know they have similar feelings: they are probably deep in prayer for the condition of my soul even as I write this. That's the nature of family—or at least ours: agree to disagree, but not disagreeably; which is not a bad way to be after all. I'm sure they believe I'm "lost", though they don't condemn me. They just want for me what they think is best, and by that I think they mean 'most comforting'. What I want for them, apparently, is to remove the consolations of their religion. Is that wrong? Is that bad?

Why should I insist that people confront reality? Of what real value is truth?

What if their way works for them? It firmly ensconces them in a vital tradition. It expresses an authentic, deeply human emotion—that of awe and reverence and a sense of powerlessness in the face of something that is greater than themselves (Step 2, if you're counting). It establishes for them a sense of community with other like-minded believers. It provides structure and, dare I say it, meaning in their lives. It has helped several of them reform and renew their own lives—saved them, if you will, from their own sinful nature (religionists, in general, are often desperately afraid of the evil they know themselves to be capable of). It has provided them with an answer to the age-old question "what is it to live a good life?" It has inculcated (mostly) positive values in them: e.g., self-sacrifice or -abnegation for the sake of one's family and friends and community (i.e., agápē) is the epitome of what it means to be human, in fact, it is as close as we can get to being divine.

I get it.

In the microanalysis, I suppose, this isn't a bad thing. That's my quandary.

I've always been cursed with the ability to see both sides of an issue. That's made me a pretty good lawyer—if you can make your adversary's case better than they can (without straw men and shouting and other rhetorical distractions), then you know how best to make your own strongest case and, as well, confront your own weaknesses. But, in other instances, it renders me ineffectual, paralyzed by my own philosophical bent, alienated from my own passions. I would never be a good pundit (or book reviewer), because, for me (unlike so many others), thoughtfulness and reflection necessarily precedes taking a position or forming an opinion.

But enough about me.

Why should I throw cold water on all the warm fuzzies their religion provides them? That's not a question I can answer directly.

Here's what I believe. Religions attempt to supply solutions to the deepest mysteries of life. Their answers are figurative in nature. Taken too literally, they are misleading at best. The forms, the rituals, the texts, the authoritative figures, the hierarchies, etc, (all of which, by the way, are reflections of the cultures out of which they emerge)—that is to say, the means of communicating the answers—lose their metaphorical or mythic significance and become ends in themselves. And the religionists lose sight of the original questions.

What are those original questions? Something like: 'Why is there something and not nothing?' 'What is the nature of life?' 'What is my life?' 'What is the nature of selfhood or identity?' 'How is it that I am aware of what's going on all around me?' 'What is my place in the overall scheme of things?' 'How should I act with respect to others?' 'Who is my neighbor and who isn't?' 'What does it mean to be "good", "just", "right", "honest"?' 'What is my individual fate?' 'What is the fate of humanity?' 'What is the fate of creation?', etc.

I don't pretend to have pat answers to these questions. And that's the difference between me and most (I stress the word 'most') religionists: they claim to have exclusive, proprietary avenues to arrive at solutions to these and like questions. And they're almost always toll lanes!

I do not believe one has to be a religionist, much less a sectarian, to contemplate the nature of existence and life and consciousness and community and tradition and morality and fate and, yes, eternity. No.

The problem I'm having with my loved ones relates directly to the question of consciousness.

Consciousness is indeed something miraculous. The fact that we can perceive the world around us—get a whiff of a stinking iris or bask in the warmth of a spring sun or savor a crisp, ripe cantaloupe or marvel at the artistry of Glenn Gould as he plays (and hums) the magnificent Bach or witness the deep, star-peppered darkness of a moonless night—is truly miraculous. That we are aware of ourselves processing these sensations and can respond in interestingly useful and conscious ways to them is an unfathomable complexity. "So I've got that going for me. Which is nice."

Consciousness just might be the central mystery of human life: how it came to be, what its purpose is, etc. To shut it down is to deny what truly makes us special. A telescope that can see 13 billion years into the past (i.e., perceive light that has traveled 13 billion years) represents an expansion of our consciousness of the vastness of the universe and our own insignificance. To unearth earthly history (human records and fossil records and geological records through archaeology) and investigate the things we find is to expand our consciousness of our environment and who we are within it. To analyze DNA, to follow its development and mutation, is to expand consciousness of who we are and how we got to be the way we are. To create and film subatomic events through cyclotronic explosions is to expand our consciousness of invisible realms never before dreamed of. To theorize about gravity or evolution or big bangs or strings or infinite primes is to expand our consciousness of the way things work. Yes, we have only five basic senses, but we can and have become conscious of so much more. This is science.

Certainly, it is important to question the validity of what we become conscious of. Descartes taught us to doubt perception, but never to doubt that we ARE. Indeed, we might be dreaming all we perceive, or there might be some evil homunculus in our pineal glands tickling the receptors in our brains and trying to trick us into false beliefs with all manner of elaborate fake sensations. Sure, we should ask those questions. But, to the extent there are consistencies and coherence in our picture of the world as it is given to us (our consciousness of it), it makes sense to conclude we are not being intentionally deceived (there is, e.g., no elaborate trickster god trying our faith by making things appear older than the 6,000 years they really are; no Matrix). What doesn't make sense is to relapse back into the dream state of belief—to take the blue pill. Because it is a gift, we have an obligation to consciousness.

So, the issue for me is how to deal with it. These people are my loved ones. My family. Yet, their obstinacy and ignorance in the face of scientific reality disturbs me. And I know theirs is not the end of it. It is pervasive—and not only in our society. Consciousness raising is costly, time-consuming, and often quite painful, especially when dealing with closed, convinced minds. Perhaps futile. If, by being insistent, I am doomed to fail and even alienate them, what is the nature of my obligation to them? To me?

There is a prior question: How sure am I of the rightness of my position? This is the kind of question most religionists—and all absolutists—either fail or are incapable of asking, much less answering. Yet it is a theological question.

Could I be wrong? And if I am wrong, what consequences? Most religionists have the missionary zeal, the evangelical fervor, the certainty (however deluded it might be). I don't.

Maybe that means I don't love them enough to try and wake them from their blissful, though stony sleep. To rouse them from their ignorance. To disabuse them of their delusions. Perhaps that means I just don't care.

Or, perhaps that just means I'm not the Buddha or even a Bodhisattva. Or Neo. Or, for that matter, even Carl Spackler with his pitchfork and pitch-perfect delivery. Just a blogger.

No matter. I'll go on.
"Abode where lost bodies roam each searching for its lost one. Vast enough for search to be in vain. Narrow enough for flight to be in vain. ... (7)

From time immemorial rumour has it or better still the notion is abroad that there exists a way out. ... (17-18)

So on infinitely until towards the unthinkable end if this notion is maintained a last body of all by feeble fits and starts is searching still. There is nothing at first sight to distinguish him from the others dead still where they stand or sit in abandonment beyond recall. ... (60)

So much roughly speaking for the last state of the cylinder and of this little people of searchers one first of whom if a man in some unthinkable past for the first time bowed his head if this notion is maintained." Samuel Beckett, The Lost Ones (62-63)

Gunga la gunga.

26 May 2009

Articles of Faith: SSSSayyyy FFFFear Is a Maaaan's Besssst FFFFriend

where ignorance is bliss,/'Tis folly to be wise.
Thomas Gray, Ode On A Distant Prospect Of Eton College (1742)
Ignorance is bliss, and in a sense it is. Gray here is speaking of the ignorance of cosseted children, fenced off in paradisal playground, unaware of the realities of the world. To the childishly ignorant, wisdom seems a foolish intrusion.

Gray is not trying to show us the way to live. He is using irony. Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance masks what I've been calling the 'ur-story': consciousness of our mortality, existential pain, adult melancholy, the sense of loss. Where wisdom is available, where truth can be grasped, ignorance is a refusal of reality. Ignorance is the mask of a deep-seated and unreconciled fearfulness of life.

This is a very personal post—perhaps the most personal post I've yet written. This weekend, we entertained people from out of town—three generations aged roughly 75, 45, and 15. These are people I love. Yet, they aren't curious about the world, about reality. Like the school children in Gray's Ode, they exist in a comfortable psychological world where their beliefs are a bulwark against knowledge. They don't want to know; don't want to understand. They have what Paul in his Letter to the Phillippians called "the peace...that passes all understanding." Thirteen billion year old universes, 47 million year old fossils: these things threaten them.

They are worried about where to send their youngest, the 15 year old, to college. They believe that academics are hostile to them, that science is a threat to them, that universities persecute them. They don't want to expose her to such things as cosmology, evolution, homosexuality, mixed race couples, etc. Apparently, there are colleges out there that will allow them to maintain their ignorance unchallenged.

Ignorance, in general, bothers me. Their ignorance pains me. That there is nothing I can do to enlighten or educate or awaken them vexes me. That such "colleges" exist angers me.

Now, these are not stupid people. These are people with high IQs. Two of them have post-graduate degrees. Some of them voted for Obama. They are capable of learning, but, when discussions of certain things arise, they shut down, retreat into their biblical cocoons, and refuse to entertain new ideas. I have learned from painful experience not to broach these topics with them. Their ignorance is stubbornly willful.

If they were open-minded, logical, it would be simple to disabuse them of certain epistemological lacunae. For example, I've heard them say something like "I don't believe in the theory of evolution." To me, this is something like Gilbert Ryle's 'category mistake.'

It is a mistake to ascribe belief (certainly in the sense they intend) to a scientific theory. For example, one doesn't believe in the theory of gravity: one observes a ball or an apple fall to the ground; one jumps out of a tree and promptly falls to the ground; in fact, one observes that everything that has no independent form of propulsion falls to the ground. The theory of gravity is proven inductively, that is by the accretion of consistent examples. I don't have to believe it. I've learned it from a combination of observation and experience. I understand it. The theory works: its explains all these phenomena. Most importantly, I know that the next time I jump from some place high off the ground, I'm going to fall to earth unless I can come up with some adequate means of propulsion to keep me up. And I can warn others of the same thing.

But, if I am an ignorant religionist observing the same phenomena, I might postulate that since I can't see (or hear, smell, touch, or taste) gravity, gravity is a mere theory; it hasn't been proven conclusively (or at least to my stubborn satisfaction). Further, I can then postulate that there must be some god living under the earth who commands everything to come to him, and he holds the moon, the sun, and all the stars in his thrall. This all-attracting god alone is real. If anyone challenges my belief in the attractive god, they are persecuting me personally.

I can't prove to these true believers that there isn't some invisible all-powerful deity down there, and as long as I ignore the fact that the earth (and I) is not the center of the universe, then that belief is at least a plausible explanation of the facts. But once I start looking at facts—the known facts about the origins of the universe or the positioning of the earth relative to the sun, moon, planets, and stars—I realize I have to really work hard to maintain this silly, ignorant superstition.

The clincher, though, is not proof; the clincher has to do with actual thought. I may never be able to prove gravity, in the sense of observing it directly. But I can imagine what it might take to disprove the theory of gravity. I know that if an apple ever falls up or if I ever leap out of a tree and simply float around in the sky, it will disprove my current theory of gravitation, and I will have to either refine it or junk it and come up with some newer, better explanation. This is the condition of its falsification. I know what it will take to make the theory false.

With the attractive deity (invisible, all-powerful, etc.), I do not know what evidence or what facts will prove her existence false. I don't know what it will take to falsify this superstition. Belief is not subject to truth conditions or to falsification. If something falls up, the believer can simply say "the god willed it to test my faith" or "my belief and faith in the all-attracting god was so strong she suspended her thrall and let me fly" or some such. True belief always trumps the facts.

A theory can be falsified. It doesn't demand belief, it demands understanding. A religion commands absolute belief. To its adherents, it can never be falsified.

This is the caliber of ignorance we in the 21st century America have to face. Ignorance reinforced by religion. People afraid to send their children to college because they fear their beliefs will be challenged. College-educated people who obstinately cling to their ignorance.

My personal dilemma is whether and how to tell my loved ones they are ignorant, how to educate them, how to enlighten them, how to awaken them from their blissful state. Can this be done in a loving manner? Can this be done gently? What are the risks (to me, to them, to the rest of my friends and relations)? What are the benefits? Is it a project I should even consider? Is it my place to even try?

[to be continued]

20 May 2009

Time Travel

Say hello to Darwinius masillae! Her friends call her Ida.

She is a remarkably well-preserved 47 million year old fossil of an early primate.
"[S]he is the most complete and best preserved primate fossil ever uncovered. The skeleton is 95% complete and thanks to the unique location where she died, it is possible to see individual hairs covering her body and even the make-up of her final meal – a last vegetarian snack.

"This little creature is going to show us our connection with the rest of all the mammals; with cows and sheep, and elephants and anteaters," said Sir David Attenborough who is narrating a BBC documentary on the find. "The more you look at Ida, the more you can see, as it were, the primate in embryo."

"This will be the one pictured in the textbooks for the next hundred years," said Dr Jørn Hurum, the palaeontologist from Oslo University's Natural History Museum who assembled the scientific team to study the fossil. "It tells a part of our evolution that's been hidden so far. It's been hidden because the only [other] specimens are so incomplete and so broken there's nothing almost to study."
Here's a feature-chocked, explanatory Flash of the above picture. Here's a slide show.

Fossils are one of the ways we have to "travel" back in time. Ida gives us a snapshot of a creature that roamed the planet an unfathomably long time ago—for many people, their backwards time-horizon is somewhere between five and ten thousand years. Still, what if we could travel in time? What sort of protocols would we have to follow? In honor of the new Star Trek movie, this blogger over at Discover has tried to think it through:
0. "There are no paradoxes.
1. Traveling into the future is easy.
2. Traveling into the past is hard — but maybe not impossible.
3. Traveling through time is like traveling through space.
4. Things that travel together, age together.
5. Black holes are not time machines.
6. If something happened, it happened.
7. There is no meta-time.
8. You can’t travel back to before the time machine was built.
9. Unless you go to a parallel universe.
10. And even then, your old universe is still there."

15 May 2009

Ur-story: Desperate Housewife (Pt. 4)

[continued from last posts]

It takes a certain artistry to be able to enter the persona and perspective of a fictional character. I've called it 'method writing.' And, in this, I agree with James Wood in his How Fiction Works. Yet, there are other artistries. The history of the novel is not, as he suggests, simply the history of the development of the free indirect style. William Gaddis in Carpenter's Gothic (as well as his other novels) is a case in point.

CG, like all his novels, is a busy canvas. Yet, the principal character of Elizabeth Booth emerges through the clamor of what seems like the world crashing in around her.

To apply another analogy, the text is like a tightly woven fabric: textile, if you will. And if you unravel one thread, wondrous things emerge. Here, I want to worry one thread: Liz throughout the book is writing a novel.

One of the prurient reasons we read novels is to see what other people are like when they're by themselves. To eavesdrop on their privacy, their aloneness. In CG, every chance Liz gets a quiet, private moment she settles in to work on her unfinished novel; yet, just as she's starting to get into it, the world, in one of its multiform ways, interrupts. She becomes, as Eliot famously says, "distracted from distraction by distraction." Still, a few bits of her novel show up in the text of CG. Let's follow the thread of her novel through the book; here's our first hint:
"No I'm fine Edie honestly, I'm fine I just told you nothing's the matter, I've been...I haven't no, I mean it was going to be sort of a novel but I haven't worked on it since we got here I haven't written a word I haven't even looked at it I've, I've been so busy with, with people here a cancer charity..." (35)
This states the theme carried through CG by the motif of her novel. There is no rest for Liz. The matters of the world prevent her from being able to focus on her writing. There is no quietude. If, as Franzen believes, Gaddis is an angry writer, this seems to be his chief complaint.

No one listens to Liz. Except for one brief moment, Edie is the only sympathetic ear she finds in the whole story.

Writing, for Liz, seems to serve two purposes. One, it helps her to imagine that her life could be different than the way it is. And, two, it provides her an escape from the clamor that surrounds her. She dreams of escaping. At one point, she asks her husband:
"—Paul do you think I could, maybe I could go away for a few days?

His hand closed on her breast. —Where.

—Just, somewhere I...

—Too much going on here Liz, you know that...his hand laboured her breasts, —just get things off the ground we can take a week someplace.

—No I meant, I meant just me." (54)
She fantasizes about a late-night TV rerun of Orson Welles's Jane Eyre while her husband makes love to her and, later, her fantasy of escape through the movie is throttled by lashing rain and lightning striking a large tree (also on TV). (55-57) She cannot escape Paul, it seems. So she fantasizes a different existence:
"Digging under scarves, blouses, lingerie in the top drawer she brought out a manila folder riffling the score or so of hand written pages, crossings out, marginal exclamations, meticulous inserts, brave arrows shearing through whole paragraphs of soured inspiration on to the last of them abandoned at what it might all have been like if her father had married a schoolteacher, or a chorus girl, instead of the daughter of a stayed Grosse Pointe family, or if her mother, lying silent even now in the cold embrace of a distant nursing home, had met a young writer who...

She was up for the moment it took to find a pen and draw it firmly through young writer who, take up rapidly with man somewhat older, a man with another life already behind him, another woman, even a wife somewhere...his still, sinewed hands and his...hard, irregular features bearing the memory of distant suns, the cool grey calm of his eyes belying...belying? She found the dictionary under the telephone book, sought for bely and could not find it.

—Mrs Booth?

—Oh! She was up..." (63-64)
McCandless, her landlord, interupts. Soon, he leaves, and it's back to her novel:
"Up the stairs she paused to run the bath, down the hall undoing her blouse with the worn address book still tight in her hand she'd barely lit the bedroom and slipped off her shoes, barely come down among the papers on the bed bent over the last of them, the cool, grey calm of his eyes belying...her lips moving, when the downstairs toilet flushed." (68)
But Billy, her brother, has arrived. Another interruption. Still, he poses the right question:
"...why don't you pack up. Pack a bag and get out of here Bibbs, listen. I'm going to California I'll wait for you. Tonight, pack a bag and I'll wait for you.

—I, I can't.

—Why not why can't you. Leave him a note tell him you just have to clear some this bullshit out of your head, this broken down house the whole wet gloomy everything dying out there in the sun, get a look at it. Why can't you.

—Because I, it wouldn't be fair..." (89)
She's a good person. Perhaps the only scrupulous character in CG. Billy, a naif, soon leaves and it's back to the:
"folder spread open on the bed where she came down to the last page taking her pencil straight to a man somewhat older and drawing it through another life, writing in other lives; through another woman for other women; through somewhere, for a wife hidden now in Marrakech, biting the nub of the eraser over his still, sinewed hands when the phone brought her upright.

—Yes hello...? No, no he's not here who is it, if he calls I can... Well yes he was here briefly Mrs Fickert, but he had to turn right around and...pardon? Well he, well yes of course he's married. I mean I'm his wife. Do you...hello?

The train [on TV] sped toward her and she caught the towel together at her breast up fetching Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, and it roared right over her as though she'd gone down on her back there between the tracks. Opened to the Ds now, licking her fingertip past dogtrot, dive, her finger ran down dishevel, dishpan hands till it reached disinterested, where the precisely incorrect definition she sought was confirmed in a citation from a pundit for the Times, she drew a line through indifferent and wrote it in, worrying at calm with faint prods of the pencil point: the cool, disinterested calm of his eyes belying? She hatched calm in a cuneate enclosure, licking her finger paging back to the Cs for cunning, past cut-rate, curt, running down from cuneiform and held, abruptly, at cunnilingus. She was reading it slowly, finger back to her lips pp. of lingere, more at LICK, when the phone rang again.

... [some further brief interruptions]

Knees drawn up she pulled the towel round her bared shoulders and a shiver sent breath through her, staring at that page till she seized the pencil to draw it heavily through his still, sinewed hands, hard irregular features, the cool disinterested calm of his eyes and a bare moment's pause bearing down with the pencil on his hands, disjointed, rust spotted, his crumbled features dulled and worn as the bill collector he might have been mistaken for, the desolate loss in his eyes belying, belying..." (93-95)
Apparently, she works through the night. Paul, her abusive husband who practically holds her prisoner here and who she found out in the above excerpt is having an affair, recalls that she likes to writer and asks Liz to clean up a fraudulent letter he plans to use for PR, make it sound more feminine. She refuses and Paul gets irate, accusing her of being unsupportive:
"—Write a novel you make up these different characters? put them in these situations getting rich, getting divorced, getting laid where they're talking to each other you pretend you're these characters so they sound real? Same God damn thing Liz, sit down for ten minutes pretend you're this good loving Christian mother Sally Joe writing a nice letter to..." (112)
Paul leaves for a few days. Liz & McCandless make love—vividly. Billy leaves with McCandless to go into the city. She turns on the television—yet another big distraction. And it's back to the novel:
"Those hands disjointed, rust spotted, crumbled features dulled and worn on the page right where she'd left them, she spread the manila folder open on clean sheets, reached for a pencil and found none, and then came back slowly on the fresh pillowslip stilled in the ashen flush of those silenced lips contorting soundless syllables on the [TV] screen which gave way, as the light at the windows gave way, to a lady playing the piano, to a man playing golf as the room grew darker, to leafy vistas and soldier ants in grim procession, to shell bursts brightening the walls for an instant, dimming with stretcher bearers, men loading a howitzer, firing a mortar turned away stopping their ears against the pounding, pounding, she was up, her feet off to the floor, reaching for the light, calling out—I'm coming! to the pounding on the door below, hesitating and then sweeping the folder up from the bed and back into the drawer under blouses, scarves, before she made way down the dark stairs, got the light on under the sampler, got the door open." (198-99)
At the end, the house is broken into. Liz collapses in Paul's arms, and he promises to take her away from all this. She comes upstairs. The drawer where she keeps her novel—her secrets—has been ransacked;
"She came in slowly picking things, dropping them again with a sense of something missing but apparently none of what it might be, finally settling to gather up the pages as though, righting them in their folder, here in her own hand at least lay some hope of order restored, even that of a past itself in tatters, revised, amended, fabricated in fact from its very outset to reorder its unlikelihoods, what it all might have been if her father and mother had never met, if he'd married a chorus girl instead or if she'd met a man with other lives already behind him, crumbled features dulled and worn as a bill collector on through the crossings out, the meticulous inserts, the wavering lines where her finger had run over cut-rate, curt, in pursuit of cunning and on to collisions of only days before, seeking the spelling of those Jack Russell terriers running down jackleg, jack mackerel to trip on jack off (usu. considered vulgar); seeking, for some reason, loose for its meaning as slack here cited in the sex roles of shorebirds with the author's name misspelled; confusing rift for cleft, and there waylaid by the anal ~ of the human body or here was livid, bypassing ashen, pallid, for the perversion she sought and found licensed by a sensitive novelist as reddish (in a fan of gladiolas blushing ~ under electric letters) for this livid erection where her hand closed tight on its prey swelling the colour of rage when she looked up sharp, straight before her: the television was gone." (247-48)
Then, after Liz dies, Paul finds her novel:
"And he stood there filling the doorway until the undistinguished grey car turned down the hill, knocking over a broom leaning there against the staircase and picking it up, standing there looking up the stairs and finally dropping the broom back to the floor and climbing them, down the hall where scarves, sweaters, papers, the chest's drawers themselves still lay flung out on the bed, on the floor as he'd found them, and the manila folder where he'd found it spread open on the bed to pages in a hand he knew spelling little more than bread, onions, milk, chicken? here drawn out in whole paragraphs and crossings out, marginal exclamations, meticulous inserts, her tongue tracing the delicate vein engorged up the stiffening rise to the head squeezed livid in her hand, drawing the beading off in a fine thread before she brought him in, surging to meet him for as long as it lasted, standing there numbed and then replacing it carefully in the folder, and then he stooped to pick up his shoes and hurried from the room, down the hall where his same numbed look met him now in the mirror over the basin, the white wisps he'd found there dangling from his hand as though he didn't know what to do with them before he turned on the water full and held his head under the tap, finally coming out shaved, scarred and shirtless where a movement no more than the flutter of a wing caught his eye through the glass at the foot of the stairs, someone on tiptoe, peeing in, and he came down them." (257)
For the first time in the story, Paul is speechless. Spinless. He's devastated by what he's found. This passage mirrors precisely Gaddis's narration in Chapter 5, where Liz and McCandless make love, where, it seems, deep speaks to deep, and where he betrays her.

There are many such threads, and one of the great pleasures of this (and just about any other Gaddis novel) is unraveling them. The illusion of systematicity: this is Gaddis's greatness.

And, as if to emphasize the importance of this particular novel-within-a-novel thread, Gaddis mirrors it. McCandless, it seems, has published a pseudonymous novel. It is, at least according to one accusatory character, a veiled account of McCandless's own life and time in the CIA—that is, a roman a clef. At one point, between the time he first meets Liz and their tryst, Gaddis gives us a short, revelatory, because italicized, passage:
"I distrusted romance. See, though, how I yielded to it.

A man, I suppose, fights only when he hopes, when he has a vision of order, when he feels strongly there is some connexion between the earth on which he walks and himself. But there was my vision of a disorder which it was beyond any one man to put right. There was my sense of wrongness, beginning with the stillness of that morning of return
... while from the kitchen, the chords of Bach's D major concerto heaved into the room around him and settled like furniture." (150)
Now, whatever connection we are meant to draw by virtue of the fact that McCandless spells 'connexion' in the British way and Gaddis consistently spells 'colour' and 'labour' in the British way throughout I'll leave to educated speculation. Some have suggested McCandless is a stand-in, a cut-out, an alter ego for Gaddis. He's a novelist (of sorts) and a prankster, the mysterious owner of the house. Possibly insane, he has an affection for Liz. And his desire for order, reflected in this passage, is what he finds in Liz

There are any number of similar interwoven threads for the reader of Carpenter's Gothic to worry. All of them insightful to this complex book, all of them profitable. And, to me as a writer, this is the most demoralizing aspect of Gaddis's supreme artistry: it seems an almost insurmountable task to accomplish such a feat. Yet, this seems to be the tragic message of Liz and her aborted novel: whenever she gets the chance she works on her novel, but is constantly being interrupted, disrupted, distracted; she tries to pick up wherever she left off, but it is difficult; still, she is constantly, ruthlessly revising, trying to get it just right; to this end, she incorporates and fictionalizes aspects of her own life; but she dies before she can finish.

And it is this last which brings us to the artist's ur-story. Gaddis recognizes that the artist's work is perpetual and perpetually at odds with the world. CG is an artist's book. There is his vision of order and disorder—though it is beyond him (and certainly beyond Liz, or any of the others whose interiors are a jumble of good intentions) to put it right. And there is his sense of wrongness, clearly on display in such figures as Paul, Rev. Ude, Sen. Teakell, Dr. Kissinger, Lester, Billy, even McCandless. This is the connection between the artist and the earth upon which he walks.

Then there is the inevitability of the artist's dying. What, then, is lost? Death robs the writer (righter) of wrongs of the ability to fully articulate his vision, because not only is the world constantly interrupting, it is constantly changing—as is his relationship to it. Truth disappears in the spin. Justice favors the powerful. And death, likewise, never gives him the opportunity to set things aright. CG is less a work of anger, than a statement of the writer's desperation. It is that desperation in the face of his pervasive consciousness of the sense of loss—that ur-story—which, to my mind, elevates Gaddis's work to the first rank. And CG, though short, is certainly no exception.

12 May 2009

Ur-story: Desperate Housewife (Pt. 3)

[continued from previous two posts]

William Gaddis's Carpenter's Gothic is told from a consistent, though unobvious and, to me, unusual, and objective—dare I say realistic—point of view: that of the house with the quirky architectural style which stages all the book's direct action and dialogue. This is not a necessary conclusion to an understanding of the book, but it certainly provides a satisfactory description of the POV. As the central character, Elizabeth Booth, says in the passage quoted in the previous post: "it's a hard house to hide in." Everyone is seen from the outside. No one is presented sympathetically, though our sensibilities are naturally drawn to Elizabeth Booth by virtue of her time on stage. She is in nearly every scene.

Only a few characters actually make an appearance at/in the house: Paul Booth, McCandless, and Billy Voracker are the primary ones. Madame Socrate, the Haitian maid, and Lester, a CIA agent and former colleague of McCandless, also turn up, along with a few minor spear carriers such as a grocery delivery boy, McCandless's first wife, a reporter, an anonymous FBI agent, some vulgar neighborhood boys playing in the streets, and a man constantly clearing leaves.

As with the house, Gaddis's characters are "built to be seen from outside it was, that was the style." Franzen's squalid preacher and senator are actually seen at one remove: through the fragmented perspectives of the characters on stage, none of which, in itself, is entirely reliable, but all of which become, in the end, illuminative.

The authorial play on the word 'style' here—call it dramatic irony or post-modern self-referentiality—upsets some readers; they don't need the book to tell them what it's doing or to reflect on its own methods. And, if you want, you can refuse this reading. But, I have to say, this reading helps to understand Gaddis's view of humanity. In this regard, McCandless's speech (quoted in the previous post) is a bit of a manifesto. "[A] patchwork of conceits, borrowings, deceptions, the inside's a hodgepodge of good intentions:" this is an apt description of Elizabeth and McCandless and even Paul and Billy.

Much has been made of Gaddis's style, focusing primarily on his use of language and dialogue. Reading a Gaddis novel, particularly CG, is a lot like reading a play or a screenplay: there are a few scene-setting descriptions (often quite beautiful and always meaningfully crafted) and then pages of dialogue with a few stage directions thrown in for emphasis and clarification. As I said before, these techniques can be quite off-putting to the novel reader grown accustomed to her standard prose development. It is a challenge, but by no means an insurmountable one.

First off, Gaddis doesn't use quotation marks to set off speech. This is nothing new. Joyce does the same thing. So does Beckett. The reader has to determine where the speech stops and the stage directions begin. No big deal once you get used to it.

Much of Gaddis's dialogue is unattributed—though there are more tags or i.d.'s ('he said', 'she reached for a glass', etc.) here than, say, in JR. Characters speak, and the reader has to discern from the context who is speaking and to whom, especially at the beginning of a chapter or after a transition in time. Once you get to know them—their tics and vocabulary—they are easy to spot.

There are no conversational predicates (such as, e.g., "'Hi, John!' John Thompson, a tall, blond Nordic type, was still best friends with Mary even though they'd had a vivid affair in college. 'Hi, Mary,' he said. Mary hid the blush of passion, the embers of which she could not suppress after all these years, with a slight smile and a chaste, affectionate hug.") Sometimes a character will be identified only by the clink of a bottle on the edge of a glass (Paul), a stammer (Elizabeth), a cigarette paper (McCandless), a toilet (Billy), etc.. Fortunately, CG has a small cast of characters, and rarely are there more than two characters on stage at a time. Sometimes you have to read a few lines before you realize someone is conversing on the telephone to someone else while there's another character in the room with them. However, if you're paying attention, the writer always clarifies the context. Gaddis never leaves you hanging. And, in this respect, CG is more accessible than either Recognitions or JR (this, in itself, upset yet another group of readers and critics). Though, it demands you pay attention. You can't skip pages or paragraphs the way you can in 'easier' novels.

Another unsettling aspect of Gaddis's style, to some, is his use of interruptions and disruptions. Just as the reader seems to be getting the point or the drift of a conversation, something intervenes. The character gets distracted, loses her train of thought, starts off another tangent, trips or stumbles, sees something in the distance. A phone rings, someone knocks at the door, a tea kettle whistles, a tree limb rustles against the window, television or radio dialogue blends into the chatter, another character interrupts, etc. The reader has to sort things out at the same time as she is trying to make sense of whatever it is that the character is trying to say. Gaddis never lets you get comfortable.

Gaddis's characters don't speak in good, Jane Austen English. They use run-on sentences and poor grammar. They speak, much as we all do with long-time friends and family, in code words or as though they are continuing a long-running conversation into which the reader has only recently tapped. They break things off then resume them later—if they resume them at all. The reader has the sensation of eavesdropping on an on-going drama, not all of which seems relevant or pertinent. Yet, the codes are ultimately decipherable, the private languages penetrable.

Another discombulating technique Gaddis uses is to gives the reader only one side of a telephone conversation. Having to figure out what the person on the other end of the line is saying solely from the reaction of the person on stage is a fun sort of exercise. Like a crossword puzzle or a Sudoku or a jigsaw puzzle, there are plenty of clues and cross-reference points to help you put it together—but you have to work at it.

Unattributed dialogue, fragmentary speeches, grammatical glitches, one-sided conversations. The reader has to work through these. It can be frustrating because it takes a bit of mental effort. But it can be done, and, in fact, once one gets the hang of it, the reading picks up. Yet, as with the notorious impenetrable first chapter of Vladimir Nabokov's Ada, you just have to keep reading. Eventually things will be made clear.

Gaddis sprinkles a trail of breadcrumbs throughout the book; data, facts, bits of information, news, opaque references, obscure details, and even opinion and spin come at you relentlessly. If you aren't paying close attention, you'll miss something important. Though, it is safe to say Gaddis repeats the important stuff for emphasis. That is not to say he develops character and story in traditional or familiar ways (e.g., the rule of three). He doesn't.

At first, CG, like his other early novels in particular, feels like word soup. Or a "word cloud" [fyi: the image above is a word cloud of the current front page of this blog [ex-this post] created by me at Wordle). Yet, nothing, in the end, is really wasted—though, at the time you read it, it doesn't quite make sense or fit into a recognizable pattern. In this respect, Gaddis is an efficient writer, a beautiful writer. He manages to tie everything together at the end. And this may be the most frustrating part: the real exposition (the telling) takes place at the end.

[to be continued]

11 May 2009

Ur-story: Desperate Housewife (Pt. 2)

[continued from Previous Post]

Many feel Carpenter's Gothic is a relatively minor novel in William Gaddis's oeuvre. Jonathan Franzen rather summarily dismisses CG in his thorough disavowal of all things difficult and angry, that is all things Gaddis, in his Sept. 30, 2002 The New Yorker article: "Mr. Difficult:"
"If 'JR' is dedicated to the proposition that America sucks, the message of his third novel, 'Carpenter's Gothic' (1985), is that it really, really, really sucks. Gaddis himself conceded that the book was an exercise in style, and its content is strictly paint-by-numbers. A telegenic Southern preacher turns out to be—a dangerous, venal hypocrite! A United States senator turns out to be—corrupt! The book is a husk. Unlike 'The Recognitions,' it was handsomely reviewed. ... 'Carpenter's Gothic,' the book without children, is a book without hope."
That's all he has to say about CG in his lengthy critical piece which came out several years after Gaddis's death and just around the time his last novel, Agapē Agape, was published. That's okay. I'm not here either to rate or compare Gaddis's books, or, for that matter, to declare it 'good'. Summary matters of taste are nothing but. (btw: You can find the same essay reprinted in Franzen's book How to Be Alone. And here. Franzen's denunciation caused a bit of a stir, with Ben Marcus and B.R. Myers and Cynthia Ozick, among others weighing in. (You can read all about that here and here, and you can chase down the Marcus and Ozick pieces in Harper's if you have a subscription.)

So, did America really, really, really suck in the Reagan era? That's a worthy question, but not one that I shall attempt to resolve in a literary blog post. If you lived through it, you probably have your own view anyway that nothing I can say will alter.

But, is it the right question to ask of CG? Maybe I can chip away at a response to that. In my post on 'Realisms', I posited a dichotomy (not necessarily original with me) between novels that purport to bring 'news of the world' and novels that bring 'news of the soul.' Franzen automatically lumps CG into the former class, without pausing to question whether it might be of the other sort.

Certainly, sleazy religionists and politicians are not new subjects for literature—look at Chaucer or Petronius, e.g. Reverend Ude and Senator Teakell are specific American tokens of this literary type, for sure. And their potential alliance is a Damoclean sword hanging over the entire proceedings. Yet: neither man walks on stage. Neither utters a line of dialogue. They are background noise. They are part of the landscape, the atmosphere, or the furniture of the narrative. They are not, contra Franzen, what the novel is about.

Is it fair to ask whether right-wing politicians and evangelical preachers were part of the fabric of American life in the 1980s? I'm pretty sure they were. And was there a movement afoot at that time to ally them in the public space. That, indeed, was a Reagan strategy that paid big dividends for the Republican party through the early part of this century.

There is simply nothing wrong with depicting social conditions in the novel. It diminishes the novel not one whit. Look at Thackeray, Dickens, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, et al. For some, presumably like Franzen (particularly after his The Twenty-Seventh City) this shouldn't be the subject of the novel. And that's okay; it's not in CG.

We might even more profitably try to discover the extent to which these political and cultural social conditions infected the lives of real human beings (i.e., the American soul), and, in our case, fictional characters.

The central action of CG concerns one character: Elizabeth (a/k/a Liz, Lizzy, Bibb), who has to choose whether to continue to suffer the assaults of these 'slings and arrows' (darts!) via her husband Paul or to escape to 'someplace warm' with her landlord/lover McCandless. And it all takes place in and on the premises of a ninety year old house in upstate New York within site of the Hudson River.

This latter point raises an interesting issue for me as a writer. Many of the so-called 'experimental' writers of Gaddis's generation played around with all the technical aspects of the novel: plot(-lessness), characterization, POV, subject matter, story, etc. For point of view, e.g., John Hawkes gave us a novel told entirely from the POV of a horse in Sweet William: A Memoir of an Old Horse. There are tons of these POV experiments (Robbe-Grillet, prominently, in Jealousy), of varying degrees of success. It's my opinion that CG is written from the perspective of the house. Let me elaborate.

There is nothing that takes place in CG that couldn't have been perceived by the house if its 'walls had ears' or its windows eyes. It's the classic 'if only these walls could talk' scenario. We never get inside the thoughts or emotions or perceptions of any of the characters. It's not a close third person, or even limited omniscient perspective. We see what we might see if we were the house observing the actions and listening to the dialogue of the people within it (or watching the people in the yard and street outside). We never hear, e.g., the other end of a phone conversation.

Now, this is clearly an old Gaddis trick, used sparingly in Recognitions (perhaps because [one surmises] the telephone was less ubiquitous in the 50s) but exploited widely throughout JR, though, in his second novel, the POV travels from place to place with its characters, being handed off often in truly wonderful ways—sometimes, even, down telephone wires. But here, he has perfected a deliberate style, locating the site of all narrative perception in this house—with all its quirks and memories. In a sense, Gaddis makes the narrating house a character. And, obviously, this is reflected in the title which is a style of American architecture. (Frolic extends and expands the POV back to a truer free indirect style.)

That being the case, so who is this Nick Carraway of a house. Fortunately, for us, this unself-conscious narrator overhears a bit of telling dialogue between Liz and McCandless, the house's owner:
"She hadn't moved. —I've never really looked at it.

—At what...looking where she ws looking.

—At the house. From outside I mean.

—Oh the house yes, the house. It was built that way yes, it was built to be seen from outside it was, that was the style, he came on, abruptly rescued from uncertainty, raised to the surface —yes, they had style books, these country architects and the carpenters it was all derivative wasn't it, those grand Victorian mansions with their rooms and rooms and towering heights and cupolas and the marvelous intricate ironwork. That whole inspiration of medieval Gothic but these poor fellows didn't have it, the stonework and the wrought iron. All they had were the simple dependable old materials, the wood and their hammers and saws and their own clumsy ingenuity bringing those grandiose visions the masters had left behind down to a human scale with their own little inventions, those vertical darts coming down from the eaves? and that row of bull's eyes underneath? He was up kicking leaves aside, gesturing, both arms raised embracing —a patchwork of conceits, borrowings, deceptions, the inside's a hodgepodge of good intentions like one last ridiculous effort at something worth doing even on this small a scale, because it's stood here, hasn't it, foolish inventions and all it's stood here for ninety years...breaking off, staring up where her gaze had fled back with those towering heights and cupolas, as though for some echo: It's like the inside of your head McCandless, if that was what brought him to add —why when somebody breaks in, it's like being assaulted, it's the ...

—Listen! The phone had rung inside and she started up at the second ring, sank back with the third. —All I meant was, it's a hard house to hide in...Raising her eyes up to the twinned windows again, —seeing it from outside, looking up there and seeing myself looking out when everything was green." (227-28)

[to be continued]

08 May 2009

Ur-story: Desperate Housewife (Pt. 1)

Elizabeth, a dreamy and beautiful yet insecure heiress, who is isolated in a tatty rental house up on the Hudson, is faced with a major choice: whether to run off to "someplace warm" with the mysterious stranger who has just turned up in her life or to stay and try to mend things with her scheming, unfaithful, abusive husband who uses their house as a mere way-station between business trips.

Sounds like the premise of a classic romance novel, doesn't it? Well, it isn't. It's the ending of William Gaddis's novel Carpenter's Gothic ['CG']. Elizabeth falls, hits her head on the edge of a table, and dies as the phone rings bearing a call from one of the two men in her life. McCandless, the stranger and Liz's landlord, sells the house and disappears—probably to Papua, New Guinea. Paul, her husband, rides off into the sunset in a limo with LIz's best friend.

Is this an aborted story? Or some bold, new approach to the novel?

You noobs need to know something first: the Twentieth Century was a pretty exciting time for literary fiction. If it were only known as the century of the full flowering of the short story, it would have to rank with some of the great eras in literary history. But there was more, so much more. The traditional novel matured nicely then spun off into amazing, unpredictable directions. There were the acknowledged giants: e.g., James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Vladimir Nabokov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And there were the innovators: e.g., Samuel Beckett, Italo Calvino, Alain Robbe-Grillet. We, in America, had a pretty strong starting line-up, too: e.g., William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, to name but a few of the more prominent. But, the class of American novelists who found their way to publication in the 50's and 60's was unparalleled: (in no particular order) Mailer, Vidal, Bellow, Burroughs, Updike, Elkin, Salinger, Heller, Vonnegut, Roth, Gardner, Gass, Pynchon, McCarthy, McElroy, Salter, Connell, Barth, Coover, Hawkes, Delillo. I could go on and on. We may never see such a confluence of literary talent again (certainly configured as white males!).

One novelist who must be counted at the towering forefront of this last group, like Joyce at once a giant and an innovator, is Gaddis. His novels, The Recognitions, JR, CG, A Frolic of His Own, and Agapē Agape, challenged and infuriated and alienated entire generations of readers. Indeed, at first face, they are dense, formidable tomes.

There is simply no way to convey the excitement of first discovering a book by Gaddis. I can only imagine what it was like to be one of the 'first users' to happen upon The Recognitions when it first came out in 1955. One man has done just that: Jack Green in Fire the Bastards. Green is unsparing in taking the initial round of book reviewers/critics to task for missing out on the originality and importance of Gaddis's first monumental novel. He documents the ignorance, misunderstanding, and outright hostility that greeted it. Green, of course, is a forerunner of such luminary bloggers as Daniel Green, Edmond Caldwell, Edward Champion, Levi Asher, Blckdgrd, Derek Catermole a/k/a Toast, and, primarily in Comments on others' blogs, Steven Augustine (among others; sorry if I left anyone out. Let me know—I'm sure you will) who take it upon themselves to challenge the book reviewing/critic community for narrow-mindedness, short-sightedness, self-interest, group-think, conventionality, middle-brow/middle-class mindsets, mulishness (, etc. It's a lively group operating in a lively tradition. But I digress.

You start reading a book by Gaddis (pick any one of them, it doesn't matter) and you scratch your head. You can't figure out what's going on. You can't quite get used to the diction, the syntax, the flow of the words on the paper. No predicate, or premises (I'll come back to this in a subsequent post), for the characters and action are readily apparent. People aren't named up front. They aren't physically described, their character tics aren't prominently stated. People don't complete their sentences. Interruptions and disruptions prevent the reader from gaining any purchase on what's happening. You feel almost like you're reading a play or a screen-play, not a novel. In a word, albeit hyphenated, Gaddis's books are off-putting, even maddening. At first.

But then, when you read on, something clicks. You spot an unexpected connection or association. A relationship develops. A theme recurs. Something happens. A fact is revealed—though almost always from one side. Then you get the other side's POV on the same fact. And you realize there is a mind at work, here: a complex mind. A competence you couldn't quite see at first. Things fall into place, but are never quite resolved. So, you keep reading on.

Reading Gaddis is a challenge. It is an adventure and, quite frankly, it requires a certain amount of faith in his mastery. To my mind, this faith is never misplaced or betrayed.

CG, like all Gaddis's books, is Boschian or even Brueghel-esque in tone. From the random cruelty that sets the stage in the first paragraph to the uncomprehending chaos of the last scene, it is relentlessly dark, casting a relentlessly "cold eye—on life, on death," and we read and pass by. Here's that first paragraph:
"The bird, a pigeon was it? or a dove (she'd found there were doves here) flew through the air, its colour lost in what light remained. It might have been the wad of rag she'd taken it for at first glance, flung at the smallest of boys out there wiping mud from his cheek where it hit him, catching it up by a wing to fling it back where one of them now with a broken branch for a bat hit it high over a bough caught and flung back and hit again into a swirl of leaves, into a puddle from rain the night before, a kind of battered shuttlecock moulting in a flurry at each blow, hit into the yellow dead end sign on the corner opposite the house where they'd end up that time of day."
So much has been written about Gaddis. There are several websites and even a listserve devoted to him. As for CG, the definitive reading is Steven Moore's. Read it.

What, then, if anything, original can I contribute to this dialogue? I'm not a critic per se or a scholar. I'm a writer. My interest is from the writer's point of view: what have I learned about the craft of writing from reading CG? In the course of my Ur-story series of posts, I've enumerated the sorts of things I look for in a work of fiction. I will try to bring those interests and concerns to my reading of this remarkable novel. [to be continued]

07 May 2009

Music Trivia/Vox Pop: The Way Outs

It's time to play 'Stump the Band' here on WoW.

Some time back, a friend gave me an mp3 called "Cleopatra" by a group called The Way Outs. It might be from an album or ep called "Bite". I don't know. I can't find anything out about it. The song is a catchy power pop, psych, surf tune. Listen to it here (check the sublime bridge that begins at about 2:55), but come back:

The Way Outs - Cleopatra

Now, I know it's not these guys:

It sounds like it could be this now-defunct Belgian VOX-only combo:

The cool, Vox guitars and fuzz box would seem to indicate as much. But I can't be sure; there's nothing on either of their websites about this song. I'd like to know if this song a cover of another band's song or an original. And if this is indeed the same Way Outs—was there an Aussie band by the same name?

Any help on this would be greatly appreciated.

02 May 2009

The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports

While we're on this Southern, equine thing, did you know that "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved"—at least according to Hunter S. Thompson like 30 years ago. Yet, as we all know, things down here are slow to change.

The race itself is only two minutes long (though the party lasts a whole week). Then, according to Hunter, "[t]he rest of the day blurs into madness. The rest of that night too. And all the next day and night. Such horrible things occurred that I can’t bring myself even to think about them now, much less put them down in print. I was lucky to get out at all." Believe me, I've been there. I know. That's pretty much the way it goes. But, man, those horses are really beautiful!

Oh yeah, some 50-1 long-shot, Mine That Bird, came through today.

"You're in Georgia Now, Boy"

I knew when I moved to Atlanta in 2000, we'd have to deal with what I jokingly referred to as the "cracker factor". Georgia is a so-called 'red' state, Republican and conservative and Christian through and through once you get out of the urban and educated pockets that dot the state. The big scandal soon after we got here was the crematorium owner who left corpses lying around his property. That was odd and gruesome in a black humor kind of way.

This latest conservative, religionist offense against basic human decency is just odd—and a little scary. Seems there's a gubernatorial candidate name of Neal Horsley (remember that name) from the Creator's Rights Party. I refuse to link to them, but if you're interested you can find them on the web. They are, needless to say, an anti-abortion, anti-choice, anti-Roe v. Wade party. Nothing too strange about that. That attitude is not isolated to the South.

Horsley, however, took things one step further, though. He once ran a website called the "Nuremberg Files". Again, I will not link to it. What he did on that site was list the names and addresses and phone numbers of abortion doctors, and then cross them off as they were killed. Eric Rudolf must've been a regular.

Now, Horsley is making news again. He's running for Governor of the great State of Georgia. What he wants to do, it seems, is get elected governor, then secede from the United States. As you may know, we in the South have had some experience with that particular political strategy—to disastrous results, I might add, that have only recently begun to truly heal. "That's the only way, he says [here], to overturn Roe v. Wade. The candidate for Governor for the Creator's Rights Party says, people have to be willing to die. The idea is to take over a state, then hole up and wait for the United States army to come for a kind of Alamo last stand." He even says that if his son, an Army sergeant, were to try to stop him he would kill him, as he nearly did on another occasion. Of course, Horsley cites the Bible as proof text to justify these attitudes and feelings.

Now, the Christers have made a lot of hay over the last few years about the Pledge of Allegiance which, in the 1950s, added the phrase "under God". They don't want it dropped and condemn as unpatriotic any who do. They conveniently forget all about that "indivisible" part, which, to my mind, has more to do with patriotism.

But even that bit of hypocrisy is not the truly weird part. We expect it from them, and we love them for it. Here's the part that's cinches the deal. The title of the story pretty much says it all: "Georgia candidate for governor says sex with mules, watermelon behind him." Who says there are no second acts in American lives?*

So as not to distort things, I'll quote the 2005 interview transcript from Alan Colmes's FOX News radio show for this part:
AC: "You had sex with animals?"
NH: "Absolutely. I was a fool. When you grow up on a farm in Georgia, your first girlfriend is a mule."
AC: "I'm not so sure that that is so."
NH: "You didn't grow up on a farm in Georgia, did you?"
AC: "Are you suggesting that everybody who grows up on a farm in Georgia has a mule as a girlfriend?"
NH: It has historically been the case. You people are so far removed from the reality... Welcome to domestic life on the farm..."
The article continues: "Colmes said he thought there were a lot of people in the audience who grew up on farms, are living on farms now, raising kids on farms and 'and I don't think they are dating Elsie right now. You know what I'm saying?' Horsley said, 'You experiment with anything that moves when you are growing up sexually. You're naive. You know better than that... If it's warm and it's damp and it vibrates you might in fact have sex with it.' [The details about how he accomplished this feat can be found in the The Examiner stories—if you can get past the ickiness factor.]

And, you know something? The man will get votes here. How many? It's hard to say. But that's Georgia for you—at least one gothic, Flannery part of it anyway.

I guess the point of this is that when people like Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and conservative talk radio rabble-rousers (you know who they are) and FOX News demagogic hysterics (like Glen Beck) start talking about secession and saving this country from socialists and democrats and all the other right-wing propaganda they spew, they incite people like this Horsley guy to action.

Horsley. Neal Horsley. Remember that name (I'm sure the mules did). It's a name worthy of Dickens or Pynchon. Seriously, you can't make this kind of stuff up.

* For those of you keeping score at home, that would be F. Scott Fitzgerald. F. Scott Fitzgerald. "There are no second acts in American lives."