Notes Number 5: Smells Like Berfrois Spirit

Nevermind, I’m already 10 minutes late for my appointed volunteer shift at the Portland Convention Center to help out at AWP19. Turns out even 11:30 am too early for this old kid to gig. I hope my unexcused absence doesn’t reflect too poorly on my literary reputaughtshun. But I will use the time though, looking ever closer and deeper into “Berfois: The Book”  and “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book.”

Whenever confronted with conventions, I remember the Salinger story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” which begins:

“THERE WERE ninety-seven New York advertising men in the hotel, and, the way they were monopolizing the long-distance lines, the girl in 507 had to wait from noon till almost two-thirty to get her call through. She used the time, though. She read an article in a women’s pocket-size magazine, called “Sex Is Fun-or Hell.” She washed her comb and brush. She took the spot out of the skirt of her beige suit. She moved the button on her Saks blouse. She tweezed out two freshly surfaced hairs in her mole. When the operator finally rang her room, she was sitting on the window seat and had almost finished putting lacquer on the nails of her left hand.”

Why ninety-seven? The 97th Infantry Division was active in WWII, but Salinger served in the 4th Infantry Division. In any case, today, “the girl in 507” would, in addition to all her other time using activities, be on her cell phone, wouldn’t she? As for the advertising men, they might be attending an Associated Writers and Writing Programs annual convention, such as AWP19, this week being held in Portland. Portland is a good place for bananafish. Maybe something to do with all the rain. In the today Salinger story version, AWP might be an acronym for All Earwickers Post.

But the word “ear” appears only once in “Berfrois: The Book.” Six times in “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book.” One can read too closely. And that’s just whole words, anyway. Backing up a bit, we see “ear” appears frequently as part of other words: years, bear, Radishes, breath, Misrepresentation (in the Berfrois book); Eavesdropping, great, Picaresque, artes, Funeral, Breakfast (in the Queen Mob’s book).

The only use of the whole word “ear” found in “Berfrois the Book” is in the essay by Ed Simon, “Moved the Universe: Notes Toward an Orphic Criticism” (59:72):

“…Erato whispering in Sappho’s ear…” (59).

In his essay, Simon speaks to the mystery of literature. It’s what can’t be quizzed in class. Nor is it:

“I’ve no interest in taste, discernment, or style…” (66).

Simon is talking about the ear, about listening. He’s not asking what is literature, but where does it come from, and how does it get here. How do we hear it, learn it, learn to listen to it, for it. It’s a raw approach. It cuts through a lot of crap:

“What defines the Orphic approach is never necessarily analytical acumen (certainly not that), nor adept close readings, but rather, an ecstatic, enchanted, enraptured sense of the numinous at literature’s core. Orphic criticism is neither method nor approach, but rather attitude and perspective” (71).

For a reader, the attitude might have a bearing on Nabokov’s emphasis on relying on one’s “spine,” the “tingle” that goes up it when the magic kicks in:

“A major writer combines these three – storyteller, teacher, enchanter – but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer…a great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic…In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle” (5:6). (Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers,” from “Lectures on Literature,” Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1980).

Simon’s essay is in form a classic argument, and a perfect example of one. Plus, we get a history of literary criticism and enough references to keep us going for some time. The essay bemoans the very academic sustenance that gave it life, but explains why. In essence, theory grows monstrous when it becomes horror to the common reader. Simon’s statement, about which there will be some disagreement, I found very persuasive, intuitive, purposeful, clear and concise yet thorough and clarion in its call to let the sound back into the word.

Justin Erik Halldor Smith‘s “The G.O.E” (101:108 B:TB) is, at least in one sense, also about the ear:

“What I remember most vividly is the great cleavage, in the earliest time, when the moon was torn away from us” (101).

The speaker seems to be an ecological griot, an evolutionary being that “remembers everything,” and attempts to dialog with those who may have forgotten or never knew:

“There is a memory that runs through all of us unbidden, and that can be brought to the surface with a little effort. In this effort, we stop being I and thou, which seems implausible, but I have always felt that coming to see oneself as an I in the first place was the far more remarkable way of apprehending the world, while conjuring our shared memory with all the other Is is by far less remarkable” (101).

Justin’s piece is in form a parable. Why is life so reliant on symbiotic relationships that eat one another? There is a partnership, on Earth, at least, of animal and plant life. At least one form from the animal life world has suppressed and oppressed plant life. Too, within the animal world, there are unmarked distinctions that have grown into borders creating divides that threaten all kinds of partnership. Why does life eat itself so?

We find more “ears” embedded in “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book.” But, before we get too far away from “the girl in 507,” we find, in QM’sT:tB, “advertising.” Only once, both books combined, do we find the word “advertising.” It’s in “Conductor,” by Nate Lippens:

“I drive around my hometown, past the Sons of Norway advertising a Saturday lutefisk lunch, past the strip mall, past the mega-stores and past the Irish sports pub where men who look like fraternal twins line the bar with boilermakers” (187).

How is disgust drawn, when even one’s mother expresses doubt? While pure hate simply ignores, or pretends to. What happens when dislike pierces the skin so often we begin not to like ourselves, and begin to scratch away at an itch the source of which we know comes from where? Do we begin to blame ourselves for being the lightning rod? Nate’s piece seems a personal essay (it could be a story, the narrator a character). The writing is visceral, honest, seemingly true to experience. The writing is clear, drives forward without blinking. The essay contains the kind of writing you feel in your spine.

We interrupt this post for a PSA (Public Service Announcement): I’ve learned that I am being given the opportunity of redeeming myself from today’s (now, as I continue these notes, yesterday’s) unexcused absence. Either tomorrow or Friday, This afternoon, I should be helping out at the Berfrois table at AWP19 for a spell. I’ll be wearing my ears and my advertising cap. If your there, the table ID is T11094. We might talk about how I’ve no doubt misread Simon and Smith, Lippens, and now Pickens?.

Meantime, in the Queen Mob’s book, we find Robyn Maree Pickens using the word “ear” in “The skeleton of a dog who is still alive” (47:57).

“She has been trained to fix her gaze on the clients’ hairlines or ear tips” (48).

The story moves in a form of dream language, which is to say surreal, both clear and unclear at once. Yet,

“Her dreams are full of bounding for terriers. They are either benign guides or soporific constellations that suffocate her eyes. They must never talk about dreams at the institute. She registers the cessation of oscillating air on her head and leaves the circle” (51).

Perhaps the secret to reading all dreams is simply this:

“All references are lost. Their lives are so short. They glisten. They hum” (57).

The Pickens story also is the kind that you feel in your spine.

This is the fifth in a series with notes on AWP19 and the concurrent publication of the Berfrois and QM’sT books. I’m reading through the Berfrois anthologies this week and commenting on the writing and the conference as the week wears on.

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Spring in Portland for AWP19

Fourth Notes: AWP19, Berfrois10

That title isn’t meant to sound like a sports score. The 19th annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs convention (AWP19) coincides with the 10th anniversary of the online site Berfrois, celebrated these last ten years for its “Literature, Ideas, and Tea.” Berfrois will be at the AWP convention with copies of its recently published books: “Berfrois: The Book,” and “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book,” both published under the Dostoyevsky Wannabe Originals imprint of the British publisher Dostoyevsky Wannabe.

The two hard copy books are anthologies. They include writing by various writers that have written for either Berfrois or Queen Mob’s over the years and more. But the writing in these book print anthologies is new, entirely original, previously unpublished in any form. The writing has not been seen online, nor will it be (except of course for quoted material in reviews, etc.). The books represent a new effort by Berfrois editor Russell Bennetts to engage print, a formidable challenge in this age of Ewriting and Ereading in an Eworld.

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“Berfrois: The Book” opens with an interview with Eley Williams. A tone of humor amid chaos is established. There is something new about a Bennetts interview. The questions are creative and often playful and invite similar response.

A greener piccalilli, You must understand?

The greater the pucker caused by a pickle
The greater a succour becomes hot-tongue-tickled (21).

Speaking of green, author and translator Jessica Sequeira is included in “Berfrois: The Book” with “The Green Pickup: In honour of ST. ALBERTO HURTADO, lay brother of the Society of Jesus & his truck.”

As I wrote, the anecdotes of Hurtado’s story and his writings and my thoughts about him began to condense into the form of an object, the green pickup belonging to the Padre (78).

This is how I imagine an AWP book fair browser might engage with the books that will be exhibited at the Berfrois table, paging through, stopping here and there to take a closer look.

Probably some will stop at the very last piece, a short poem by Daniel Bosch, “Our Apps Demanded: after Hemingway” (387). I wonder if they will pick up on the original, published not quite a hundred years ago.

Imagine a hundred years of Berfrois, of AWP, and you begin to realize the importance of such things to our times and places and persons. Now think of a hundred years without them, a world barren of literary enterprise of any kind.

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berfrois tote bag and Seattle Mariners 1977 baseball cap

This is the fourth in a series with notes on AWP19 and the concurrent publication of the Berfrois and QM’sT books. I’m reading through the Berfrois anthologies this week and commenting on the writing and the conference as the week wears on.

Third Notes: berfrois in the Pacific Northwest

Writing grants access. To what? First, to one’s own thoughts, to one’s own experience. I wrote this; therefore, it happened to me, at least the writing of it did. So I have access to that, to the writing, another experience of the experience, another way to experience the experience. Are you experienced? Narrative becomes mirror, but like mirrors in a carnival funhouse. Writing is a ticket into that funhouse.

Can anyone write? Does anyone want to? In what has by now become a classic article that appeared in the May 26, 2008 New Yorker, Ian Frazier reflects on the years he spent volunteering at a soup kitchen, offering a writing workshop:

“Almost everybody who talked to me said they had some amazing stories to tell if they could only write them down. Many said that if their lives were made into books the books would be best-sellers. Some few had written books about their lives already, and they produced the manuscripts from among their belongings to show me. If you take any twelve hundred New Yorkers, naturally you’ll find a certain number of good musicians, skilled carpenters, gifted athletes, and so on; you’ll also come up with a small percentage who can really write. Lots of people I talked to said they were interested in the workshop; a much smaller number actually showed up. Some attended only one session, some came back year after year. In all, over fourteen years, maybe four hundred soup-kitchen guests have participated.”

We could all of course at least tell of our teeth. Stephen did, wandering wondering what he did:

“He  took the hilt of his ashplant, lunging with it softly, dallying still. Yes, evening will find itself in me, without me. All days make their end. By the way next when is it Tuesday will be the longest day. Of all the glad new year, mother, the rum tum tiddledy tum. Lawn Tennyson, gentleman poet. GIA. For the old hag with the yellow teeth. And Monsieur Drumont, gentleman journalist. GIA. My teeth are very bad. Why, I wonder. Feel. That one is going too. Shells. Ought I go to a dentist, I wonder, with that money? That one. This. Toothless Kinch, the superman. Why is that, I wonder, or does it mean something perhaps?”

Today is Tuesday, and AWP19 setup begins tomorrow. We’ve to move the “heavy” boxes of “Berfrois the Book” and “Queen Mob’s Teahouse, teh Book” from distribution depot closer to the Oregon Convention Center to coordinate the retail flow that will surely follow Thursday with setup complete and the Bookfair opens. The rain has let up today. The sun is out, the sky blue. Good weather for moving books. Don’t have that problem on line. Move books anywhere, anytime, instantly. Nice to have something physical to do though, lay the hands on. Honest labor. Meanwhile the travels and travails of today’s Portlanders continues, as one generation slows down and another honks its horn, stuck in traffic.

What is Portland famous for? A question I was asked yesterday. Vanport. Jazz. Homelessness. The Attic Institute: A Haven for Writers. Street Potholes. Neighborhoods, sitting out, libraries. Coffee houses, pubs. Powell’s Books. Dentists? Not so much. Marijuana dispensaries:

“The chemist turned back page after page. Sandy shrivelled smell he seems to have. Shrunken skull. And old. Quest for the philosopher’s stone. The alchemists. Drugs age you after mental excitement. Lethargy then. Why? Reaction. A lifetime in a night. Gradually changes your character. Living all the day among herbs, ointments, disinfectants. All his alabaster lilypots. Mortar and pestle. Aq. Dist. Fol. Laur. Te Virid. Smell almost cure you like the dentist’s doorbell. Doctor Whack. He ought to physic himself a bit. Electuary or emulsion. The first fellow that picked an herb to cure himself had a bit of pluck. Simples. Want to be careful. Enough stuff here to chloroform you. Test: turns blue litmus paper red. Chloroform. Overdose of laudanum. Sleeping draughts. Lovephiltres. Paragoric poppysyrup bad for cough. Clogs the pores or the phlegm. Poisons the only cures. Remedy where you least expect it. Clever of nature.”

Writes in his head, does Bloom. Blooming thoughts. Should have been a writer. Too cryptic. Where does the intellectual meet the body? In the mouth:

STEPHEN: See? Moves to one great goal. I am twentytwo. Sixteen years ago he was twentytwo too. Sixteen years ago I twentytwo tumbled. Twentytwo years ago he sixteen fell off his hobbyhorse. (HE WINCES) Hurt my hand somewhere. Must see a dentist. Money?

This post is the third in a series with notes on AWP19 and the concurrent publication of the Berfrois and QM’sT books. I’m reading through the Berfrois anthologies this week and commenting on the writing and the conference as the week wears on. Sumana Roy had a nice write up in the Mumbai Diary following news of Berfrois books. She gives great Kudos to Berfrois editor Daniel Bosch. Now there’s a writing workshop!

Second Notes on “Berfrois the Book,” “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book,” and AWP19: Lonely, the Book

One day, almost ten years ago, down at the Bipartisan Café, in Montavilla, reading on my laptop, I was gobsmacked to find someone had published on their site a piece I’d recently written for my blog, The Coming of the Toads. At the time, I’d not yet heard of Berfrois or its editor Russell Bennetts. Now, with book publications “Befrois the Book” and “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book” (Dostoyevsky Wannabe Original, 2019), Berfrois opens a new wing in its reach for readers and writers.

This week, the annual Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference is being held here in Portland. Berfrois will have a table in the book fair, the new books available for perusal, purchase, on display.

Ten years is already a long life for an enterprise devoted to and sustaining a “literary-intellectual online magazine” – that updates daily, no less. And Berfrois has managed to remain ad free while adding writers and readers, expanding its original format and content, publishing in addition to poetry, fiction, essays, photography, and notes and comment from around the Web, books in Ebook format: “’Relentless’ by Jeff Bezos,’” and “Poets for Corbyn,” for example.

Yet those same ten years have seen the continued growth of “the reading crisis,” and the “death of blogs,” debate over online versus paper reading, argument over possible decline in reading abilities and skills, and the perceived watering down of the value of a Humanities degree. Higher education is, in the opinion of many, in turmoil as increasingly news appears of schools turning to business models, cutting traditional programs, and even turning to sketchy recruiting schemes as revealed in the recent college admission crisis story, and all the while tuitions and fees rising while the whole edifice relying more and more on an adjunct workforce unable to sustain itself on local economies. What’s a writer to do?

You might move to New York, or get an MFA. That’s a choice? Or do both? Elizabeth Bishop did, sort of. She moved to New York and began teaching in a program, the “U.S.A. School of Writing.” It was a correspondence course, the kind that used to advertise on the back of a book of matches. Having just graduated college, Bishop was in New York during the Great Depression:

“Perhaps there seemed to be something virtuous in working for much less a year than our educations had been costing our families….” [but] “It was here, in this noisome place, in spite of all I had read and been taught and thought I knew about it [writing] before, that the mysterious, awful power of writing first dawned on me. Or, since ‘writing’ means so many different things, the power of the printed word, or even that capitalized Word whose significance had previously escaped me and then made itself suddenly, if sporadically, plain….”

What Bishop is talking about is “Loneliness.”

“In the case of my students, their need was not to ward off society but to get into it…Without exception, the letters I received were from people suffering from terrible loneliness in all its better-known forms, and in some I had never even dreamed of.”

(The New Yorker, July 18, 1983, retrieved 25Mar19 via TNY on-line archive available to subscribers).

With a few small changes, Bishop’s article might have been written by an adjunct instructor in today’s education marketplace. It seems unlikely though that the attendees I’ll see around AWP19 will all be lonely. But how’s a mere reader to know?

…to be continued.

This post is the second in a series. I’m reading through the Berfrois anthologies this week and commenting on the writing and the conference as the week wears on.

First Notes on the publication of “Berfrois the Book” and “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book”

The annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) convention is being held this coming week in my home town of Portland, Oregon. I’ll try to post daily through the week my local observations of the main event and its various outlier happenings. One of those happenings is the concurrent publication of “Befrois the Book” and “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book” (Dostoyevsky Wannabe Original, 2019). Editor at large Russell Bennetts will be on hand at the AWP Berfrois table with an ample supply hot off the press.

These two anthologies of contemporary writing include work by a community of writers from around the world whose collective voice argues for independent and alternative, experimental, grass roots writing and engagement in the Humanities. By calling them a community, I don’t mean to suggest I personally know any of them. I don’t. Nor am I deeply familiar with the writing of them all. I have, however, since my own discovery of Berfrois about ten years ago, and later when Queen Mob’s Teahouse went online, followed the progress of several writers appearing there, and remain a frequent reader of the sites. And of the whole I’m confident in calling it not only international but diverse in all the characteristics generally acknowledged to matter in today’s world, at least to those whose hearts beat in their chests and not in their pockets. Which is to say the community seems genuinely united in standing for freedom from tyranny or abuse of any kind in any place.

There of course we swim into deep waters, for the books, designed and published by the neophyte press Dostoyevsky Wannabe, are printed via the gargantuan Amazon. The DW press readily speaks to the issue which for some could be a show stopper – from their About page FAQ:

“Where d’you stand on the ethics of using Amazon?

We stand where every radical bookshop and arts organisation and alternative and independent organisation stand when they use Twitter and/or Facebook, or when they use a smartphone or a laptop made by another similarly faceless corporate entity who may or may not be very ethical. Ask any giant faceless corporation how ethical they are (ask their lobbyists). We stand where zine makers stand when they use Hewlett Packard or Canon printers or photocopiers. We sometimes also sit in cars and on buses that pollute the earth much the same as other independent and radical and alternative organisations. We don’t like that we have to more or less do this but we do.

Or as one of our good friends put it recently: ‘I hear Richard Kern used Kodak film for his movies. Was he really No Wave?’”

I mention the publishing platform question here in anticipation of possible staid literary critical rebuttal to the content (a criticism which might include the snobbish notion that the self-published is by definition unworthy). When Ferlinghetti began City Lights, back in the 50’s, he wanted to establish a literary community, and he did so on the back of paperbacks, at the time a sign of inferior publishing content. In any case, literary revolution was ever so, as a review of the so-called modernist journals will reveal. The work is radical at least in as much as it questions the status quo of form, content, gatekeeping (including academic), and distribution. The Berfrois and QM’sT work also seems inspired at least in part by the open source, open access, creative commons, and dropping paywall movements (particularly where academic or research papers, already in part publicly funded in many cases, are concerned). The work is Indie and Alternative, and departs from traditional industry publication methods much as the work of musicians has ventured away from the traditional recording industry – all enabled of course at least in part by technology but also perhaps by a general turning away from or shrugging of the shoulder at the popular, the mall-ed, the commercialized, but as well from the so-called credible, reliable, cited sourced and footnoted, peer reviewed. There’s a new pier in town, and it’s not Stephen’s disappointed bridge. It at least points toward something new.

Not to say though any one individual within the Berfrois and QM’sT community has not also benefited from or would refuse professional (i.e. paying) gigs. I almost framed for the wall my poem accepted and published in The Christian Science Monitor back in 2009, for which I was paid the handsome sum of $40.00. I was going to frame a cutout of the poem with the check, but I ended up cashing it to help fund my book habit. There are of course differences between writing for payment (at least one of the prerequisites to the ranks of pro) and writing for payment enough to quit one’s day job. Or night job. Or multiple jobs. Add to that one’s status as an adjunct of any organization and we wonder what kind of fuel keeps these engines running when they can only run in overtime mode. But nor is this work simply about “exposure” in lieu of pay or some sort of deferred payment or contract. Maybe, at its core, it is about the amateur spirit in writing, a spirit we remain loath to lose, as E. B. White suggested, no matter how professional we become.

So who are these spirits whose light has filled our screens and now illuminates the pages of the Book and teh Book? They do indeed include both professionals and amateurs by imprimatur and in their own right. As with any group of artists, bohemians, intellectuals, their diversity skews any leaning toward a unifying code that might undermine their independence. To what degree is calling these Berfrois or Queen Mob’s writers a community even accurate? Has someone proclaimed a movement, written a manifesto? Do they form a new school of writing, such as the Imagists, or later, the Beats? To call these writers a community might be simply to identify the line of best fit. “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” as Dorothy says upon landing somewhere over the rainbow. Or maybe that’s exactly where we are, Kansas. But what exactly is an artist and where do they work and reside? Recall father and son from Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”:

“There’s that son of mine there not half my age and I’m a better man than he is any day of the week.

—Draw it mild now, Dedalus. I think it’s time for you to take a back seat, said the gentleman who had spoken before.

—No, by God! asserted Mr Dedalus. I’ll sing a tenor song against him or I’ll vault a five-barred gate against him or I’ll run with him after the hounds across the country as I did thirty years ago along with the Kerry Boy and the best man for it.

—But he’ll beat you here, said the little old man, tapping his forehead and raising his glass to drain it.

—Well, I hope he’ll be as good a man as his father. That’s all I can say, said Mr Dedalus.

—If he is, he’ll do, said the little old man.

—And thanks be to God, Johnny, said Mr Dedalus, that we lived so long and did so little harm.

—But did so much good, Simon, said the little old man gravely. Thanks be to God we lived so long and did so much good.

Stephen watched the three glasses being raised from the counter as his father and his two cronies drank to the memory of their past. An abyss of fortune or of temperament sundered him from them. His mind seemed older than theirs: it shone coldly on their strifes and happiness and regrets like a moon upon a younger earth. No life or youth stirred in him as it had stirred in them. He had known neither the pleasure of companionship with others nor the vigour of rude male health nor filial piety. Nothing stirred within his soul but a cold and cruel and loveless lust. His childhood was dead or lost and with it his soul capable of simple joys and he was drifting amid life like the barren shell of the moon.”

Perhaps, then, there is some kind of temperament that brings and holds the Berfrois and Queen Mob’s writers together. Throughout the writing, one begins to recognize the use of certain scales. And when you mix them together you get the four body humors. And more, and there’s the humor of it. The temperament might, after all, belong to Russell Bennetts. I wonder if Russell wouldn’t prefer pizza and a beer with the hearty senior Dedalus rather than the morose Stephen. But that sets up an out of whack either or fallacy, and anyway, Russell has already invited them both.

Berfrois the Book includes work by 41 writers. Queen Mob’s Teahouse: teh Book includes work by 57 writers. Only two writers appear in both, so 96 writers from around the world represented. Many are US or UK, some Canada. New Zealand. Tokyo. Singapore. Berlin. Melbourne. Chile. Paris. Netherlands. India. Poland. That much a reader can see from the short biographies included at the end of each book, many of which though don’t name a place. In any case, Joyce said he could write anywhere. Hemingway said he could too, but maybe he wasn’t so good in some places. Where one might be located at any given moment does not necessarily betray one’s identity as a writer. For that, we must read beyond the biographies to the work. Writers travel outside time and place and person, even if they never leave their desk. As do readers.

I’ll be reading through the anthologies this week and commenting on the writing and the conference as the week wears on. I’m hoping to meet up with, in person, the, as Jeremy Fernando would say, inimitable Russell Bennetts, who is apparently already in Portland town for the conference. I already missed an opportunity yesterday.

…to be continued

What a Reader Wants

“To be sure of getting something above the average,” Edmund Wilson tells us, in his disparaging take on the genre, “Why Do People Read Detective Stories” (October 14, 1944), “I waited for new novels by writers who are particularly esteemed by connoisseurs.” But Wilson is repeatedly disappointed, in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, in Agatha Christie, in Dashiell Hammett. Wilson acknowledges Graham Greene may be on to something: “The spy story may perhaps only now be realizing its poetic possibilities.” And Wilson separates “the psychological horror [story] an entirely different matter.” But of the detective story, he has trouble understanding its popularity. He ascribes the taste for it to a search for guilt in a world where nearly everyone seems in some way partly to blame. Since no one is trusted, everyone under suspicion, the detective performs the clarifying and clear calm act of calling out the true bad guy, and everyone else, including the reader, is free to go.

For readers who rely upon the opinions of connoisseurs, The New York Review Books: Classics is the place to go. From its online About description:

The NYRB Classics series is dedicated to publishing an eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction from different eras and times and of various sorts. The series includes nineteenth century novels and experimental novels, reportage and belles lettres, tell-all memoirs and learned studies, established classics and cult favorites, literature high, low, unsuspected, and unheard of. NYRB Classics are, to a large degree, discoveries, the kind of books that people typically run into outside of the classroom and then remember for life.

Maybe “the classroom” and “discoveries” serve different purposes. In any case, last week, in another walk around the block, I pulled a NRYB Classics out of the neighborhood library box down around the corner in the lot at the Line 15 stop. It bears an odd title, mainly for a syntax which seems uncharacteristic of the sentence structure found in the book: “Black Wings Has My Angel.” Written by Elliott Chaze, it’s the only one of his novels worth reading, according to connoisseur Barry Gifford, who took on the “Introduction” responsibility for the 2016 NYRB reissue of the 1953 Gold Medal Books original. It certainly is a discovery.

“Black Wings” has the look and feel and taste and aftertaste of the detective story genre, but it’s not a detective story. There is a detective, an FBI agent, in fact, but he remains a distant foil, lurking off center stage like a bad guy. Gifford thinks Billy Wilder “would have been the ideal director” for a movie make. I’m thinking Alfred Hitchcock, or the Coen Brothers. “Black Wings” is a dark, dark, dark situation comedy. Gifford also points to Chaze’s obvious study and use of the Hemingway style: “brief, often blunt sentences devoid of unnecessary frills or explication.” That is mostly true, but for the plot and themes, a greater literary debt is probably owed Theodore Dreiser and the characteristics of the Naturalist school of literature: the ironies of fate; the missing brick responsible eventually for the collapse of the wall; chance reversals; inescapable socioeconomic determinations; greed for a wealth and lifestyle little understood by a protagonist looking to get ahead of society’s mind your manners expectations and aversions to rumination.

Though we know the first person narrator protagonist of “Black Wings” is a bad guy almost from the get go, we’ve a lot to learn about him. His fatal flaw, to use a Naturalist literary term, is falling in love. How love and bad guys get defined and treated are themes that are illustrated outside the norms of genre literature. His disappointments, his reversals, are tragicomic. His attitude might even borrow something from Camus’s “The Stranger.” “Black Wings Has My Angel” is a study of the outsider who thinks he wants in to something he doesn’t fully understand until it’s much too late. He isn’t a true existential character, because his decisions are too fraught with misunderstandings, false preconceptions and assumptions, misused talents.

Is the protagonist of “Black Wings” a free agent? Or is he at the mercy of an impossibly complicated series of chance events leading inexorably to one ignoble unavoidable end? Of protagonists, we usually ask what it is they want, and what it is that’s preventing them (the antagonist) from getting what they want. One thing he wants is to confess his story, but his story is not an apology. What he wants changes throughout the story and at the end remains ambiguous and irrelevant, such that we might not get what Edmund Wilson saw to be the attraction of the detective story – we might not get the feeling we are free to go.

Born to Read

Born to read. How boring is that? You could have been:

Born to Be Wild
Born to Be Bad
Born to Lose
Born in a Trunk
Born Again
Born Before the Wind
Born to Run

Rock and roll is the universal elixir the alchemists sought. Most US kids know the formula, share autobiographical characteristics, the cultural DNA of the mid twentieth century: the disappointed father who in the economic growth following World War II can’t seem to turn anything into gold; his solitude, his drinking, his passive or active aggressive tendencies; his criticism of life in general, of his home and family in particular; his anger, controlled or not, his anger; his hatred of the jobs and loans and duns they’re able to squeak by with. His depressions. His relationship with his company store. The sixteen tons he loads at work, and the sixteen tons he brings home every day. His wife, your mother, if they stay together, and if they don’t. His loner kid who wants a guitar. The only sports the kid is into are surfing or the pool hall or guitar. The chaos of alienation, isolation, and depression stirs the dull dust of discontent.

Many of the working class guys I grew up with could tell this story, have told this story, do tell this story. Up to the point where they don’t turn into gold. Then the story breaks, and they’re forced to contend with a present silence. Where did the existential choice to turn to rock and roll fail them? Bruce Springsteen was born to rock and roll. His autobiography, “Born to Run” ( 2016), tells the story most guys could tell, until, of course, he turns to gold. But whether we turned to gold, silver, bronze, or lead, the story will sound familiar to those born around 1950, in the heart of rock and roll, in a US small town.

Small towns can be deceiving. Freehold, New Jersey, for example, is only a couple of hours drive to Brooklyn. What defines a small town though isn’t necessarily its proximity to the big city, but the local high school, where family values are tested in a melting pot and loners come of age, and the local churches, which, while professing belief in the same big bang book, remain at odds over how to read it. A local factory or refinery will help define a small town, or a mill, or a nearby ocean beach. A rail or main street might separate two sides of the town, and the one high school maintains the same resulting socioeconomic distinctions. The promise of high school is the get out of Dodge free card. But then there’s a draft, and the cycle repeats.

The voice of “Born to Run” seems to have been edited the way a song might be mixed and remixed, filtered and sifted, until it’s as close to the pure gold style of a bestseller it’s gonna get. It’s clear and articulate, unfettered by literary or personal idiosyncrasies, professionally orchestrated and well organized. Which is to say, it sounds written, not spoken, something seemingly at odds with the roots of rock and roll. But the book itself is not rock and roll, nor was it intended to be. It’s about a working man who as a kid makes an existential decision to turn himself into a musician, a songwriter, an artist. And then turn the musician into gold. And then to sum it all up, to talk about the alchemy of his life.

I especially liked the way the changing relationship with his father unfolds in non-contiguous chapters as Bruce and his father age, learn, change, yet remain the same, yet change again. Just so, the book balances a lot of balls in the air simultaneously, moving in turns from family to songs to concerts to the business of popular music and back to family again. Readers won’t doubt the veracity of the story, no matter how exaggerated or played down its various parts might be, for they will have lived much of it themselves.

But rock and roll is a circus, and the circus can’t stay in any one small town. It must move on. And when it leaves town, it’ll take one or two loners with it, every time. The circus is a road show, a tour. And the circus is always looking for a new act, something to refresh its atmosphere and surprise its audiences. A new song. The same song, but a new song. Or, a new song that creates a similar feeling the old song made. That’s part of the alchemy. Does it really need all the spectacle? How big does the circus need to get? How many rings before you lose track of the center. What happens when the quintessential, archetypal circus outgrows the small town?

Springsteen seems a kid who runs not for the sake of running, but because he can’t keep still. His book is not tabloid. It’s respectful, aims for honesty and transparency while steering clear of details that might only smear the message in further misunderstandings or too quickly satisfy the reader who comes on with preconceived notions and unquestioned assumptions. Springsteen admits to the frailties and insecurities that plague most of us, the depressions and anxieties that drop by out of nowhere to say their hellos and pay their respects every now and then, and the doubts about what we might be doing or how we are doing it at any given moment, including in the spotlight. If he sounds egotistical, narcissistic, self-centered, lonely, at times, it’s because he is, which he freely admits and tries to explain, but he’s also funny and full of fun, balanced, humble when he knows he needs to be. He seeks help when he realizes he can’t go it alone, or his understanding of what’s happening to him is incomplete. He’s critical of things he loves, the people and places and circumstances that help make him who he is; which is to say, he’s not cynical. He’s realistic. His book provides lesson after lesson of songwriting, concert making, of being a son and husband and father and businessman and citizen – lessons about working, about blue collar commitment to tools, about respect for others as well as how to build your own stage.

There’s a scene late in the book where Springsteen takes his then teenage son to see a new, young band the kid’s been following. Backstage after the show, the bass player shows father and son a tattoo he has of the father on his arm. His son is gobsmacked, but later finds it funny, while Bruce realizes the tattoo says much more about the bass player than it does about him. That’s not him in the tattoo; it’s an image. An image of what? For that, you’ll have to read “Born to Run.”

Entertainment is circus. Circus is defined by its boundaries, the circle, the entrance, enchantment in a spotlight (a smaller circle), the victorious exit amid applause. Though real life is also circular, boundaries are more fluid, and spectators get mixed up with the clowns and acrobats and the freaks. What goes around might come around, or not, might come around and slap you upside the head or whiff on by. Performers come and go, tents get moved, the circus goes on. Send in the clowns.

“Born to Run” is about identity, finding one’s own, wanting it to be authentic and hoping to stay true to it, and what it takes over time to fuel that identity, its costs, and what it takes to forge an identity in a cold deck stacked against it. But you can’t just choose any identity. The existential question that involves defining the meaning of your own life can’t ignore whatever privileges or handicaps you are born into, regardless of how relatively light or heavy those appear to be. And one’s identity changes over the years. People change, even if the proximate cause of change is a world that won’t stay still. Being born to run turns out to be an advantage in a society that moves about like a circus. And the work is never over, the existential self-identity crisis. It’s a life long work. And one struggles against the identities others may try to insist upon, impose, brand: failure and loser; hero and savior; outcast and outlier; man of the hour or woman of the year; runner up or has been; employee of the month or slacker.

But to say one is born to anything, however seemingly noble or rotten, is to concede, to acquiesce to chance, to renounce the birthright of being human, which is to choose. It’s not enough to be born once. One must be born again. But it’s not enough to be born again once, either. One must be born again every day. That’s the cycle. Every day there is a choice to be made. It’s no good saying, as some do, simply, I am what I am. One is born to nothing. Birth is hard work. But it’s the only thing we really have to do, to give birth to ourselves. Born to choose.

Rubbing Amber

The new monks like moths gather to the light
scree falls into the folds of their feathered skin
robes amid foul screens callous bawls
window shades pulled down
the game glows with electric flames warm
and hand wrapped wireless controllers
fingers jostle the joysticks.

Tangential Narratives: Notes on Julia Cooke’s “The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba.”

As a child can only be tangential to its parental revolution, what happens when the citizen is a child of the state that follows, the state that insists on adopting parental authority, never relinquishing its hold? The child learns to walk and talk in the surveillance of its parental shadows. Some children learn to escape into other families, baseball or boxing, music or resistance. Most want a narrative of their own. They must go off on a tangent.

It may seem some sort of performance is required: “The self does not belong to its possessor…A person is a mask which has grown into the body, grown one with the body” (from chapter V Person, “Love’s Body,” Norman O. Brown, 1966). A state, too, may be such a mask.

And when that self belongs to the state, is the state, revolution may become the mask. And the mask must be kept alive, at all costs. This is the state as a person, the corporation as a person. Symbols wash up with the tide. If states and corporations are people, what becomes of an actual person of substance? In practice, the further actual persons can move from the state or corporation claiming itself to be a person, the less likely the actual person is to be totally subsumed in the umbra of public eclipse.

A few weeks ago, rummaging through the neighborhood library box down around the corner, I pulled out “The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba” (2014), by Julia Cooke. The book is a first person narrative of Cooke’s time living in Cuba on the local economy amid actual persons of substance, each with their own personal narrative, all complicated by the paranoia often created by the inability to completely know another person (let alone a state or a corporation), particularly when that person lives within the shadows created by a repressive rule.

One of the ideas in Norman O. Brown’s “Love’s Body” is the state shaped like a body. Thus we get the head of state and the seat of government, the long arm of the law. And the body is huge, its shadow gigantic. And of course we get metaphor. And metaphor too becomes enmeshed in the narrative.

The reductio ad absurdum of the gentrified neighborhood is an urban street lined with posh restaurants. And that’s it. No locksmith. No shoe repair. No bookstore or record shop. No hardware store. No haberdashery or hatter. No luthier, plumber, or deli. No butcher, no baker, no candlestick maker. And the sidewalk has been swept clean of buskers. Poverty is the inability to make something, for lack of skill and resources. Dire poverty, fearsome and terrible, is a state of constant need. The one surplus is time, a resource persons of wealth can never get enough of. Persons with time but nothing else can only wait. Poverty is the inability to start something up while waiting.

Consumption of time is what corporations like Facebook peddle. It seems many persons have lost the ability to spend time doing nothing. Thomas Piketty argues that as capital continues to grow exponentially, income of persons with no capital falls (“Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” 2014). The poor will still have their labor power, but the 21st Century is already seeing needs for human labor diminish. What becomes of the poor person when he has not even his labor to sell? The block fills with Bartlebys. From page 531 of “Capital”:

“With zero return on capital, man (or the worker) finally threw off his chains along with the yoke of accumulated wealth. The present reasserted itself its rights over the past. The inequality r>g was nothing but a bad memory, especially since communism vaunted its affection for growth and technological progress. Unfortunately for the people caught up in these totalitarian experiments, the problem was that private property and the market economy do not serve solely to ensure the domination of capital over those who have nothing to sell but their labor power. They also play a useful role in coordinating the actions of millions of individuals, and it is not so easy to do without them. The human disasters caused by Soviet-style centralized planning illustrate this quite clearly.”

And one of those disasters, given Piketty’s view, has been Cuba, and the details, the description, of the specific and authentic person to person human disaster is one of the themes of Julia Cooke’s book. Of course there’s still the problem of narrative, the stories we create as we try to explain our predicament to others. Cooke lives among common persons coming of age in Cuba as Cuba is forced to change in its old age, personified by the aging and death of Fidel and the subsequent changes in leadership. The crash of the USSR, upon which Cuba had relied for economic aid, precipitates and rushes in local change. Still, the common person, the worker, seems occupied with two choices: wait for the opportunity to leave Cuba or stay and wait for more substantive change. Leaving is possible, though not easy, through both illegal and legal means. Both options are fraught with and rely upon bureaucratic and random chance happenings. And the motivation for each relies on a future narrative fictionalized in the present. Will I be glad I left or happy I stayed?

Happiness is another theme. What is it? Do I mistake a general malaise and inertia resulting from dissatisfaction of wants and values with a permanent state of unhappiness? I seem happiest when hanging out with a few friends drenched in the heat of a Havana evening drinking bad rum out of improvised cups, listening to music, telling and listening to one another’s stories, discussing past, current, and the possibilities of future events, plans gone awry and the hopefulness of a new plan. But the extent of that telling and listening depends on who else is in the room, who else might be listening. And why they are listening. Paranoia lurks everywhere yet you’re never sure exactly from where it comes. Yet life in Cuba seems in some ways accessibly enjoyable: the weather, the sea and beach, one’s friends and family, the happy occasion of food. The lack of resources, without the boundless activities that seem to occupy persons elsewhere surrounded by sophisticated toys, pro sports, stadium rock, sponsored opera, and all the latest consumer stuff, the latest myphone, forces one into a different mode of life, but it doesn’t seem the case that this mode is unhappily different from the existential mode of unhappiness experienced when stuck in traffic in your 50 thousand dollar car in the latest but still inadequate infrastructure unable to find a good radio station in Los Angeles, Seattle, Miami, or Houston, illegally texting while driving to tell your kids you’ll be late, unable to get them to pick up their cell phones busy creating stories on Facebook and Instagram. And while you can afford not one but two 50 thousand dollar rigs, you’re pissed your health care options suck.

Cooke’s book seems journalistic in intent, but is memoiristic in style and employs a creative, literary sentence structure and narrative form, including descriptive prose and conversational dialog. The book is also scholarly, researched, with a bibliography of sources and other references as backing and useful for further study. And the book is also something of a mystery. Cooke is in Cuba to experience and report on the changes in society and the effects on everyday citizens. To what extent are her subjects representative? For the most part, the focus is Havana, where she lives and keeps track of those she meets and lives among and with. But she’s interviewing them, clandestinely, with seemingly some degree of risk to everyone involved. Add to that the romantic Havana evening – but she’s quick to dispel romantic views of life within an oppressive, repressive, almost invisible regime. Practically no one she meets owns a rebuilt ’56 Chevy glistening down a Havana street. And she doesn’t hear, she reminds us several times, the Buena Vista Social Club playing Cuban jazz on every corner, if any corners. And the Cuban health care system is one of the best in the world.

Even music, maybe especially music, and art, and literature, comes wrapped in narrative.

“Adela hadn’t left Cuba. I had often wondered, in the year since I’d left Havana, if I really knew who Adela was…Once, drunk at a party with Lucia, a friend of hers had slurred to me that no one around me was who they said they were. He’d dated an American and the secret police had knocked on his door the day after she’d spent the night for the first time to interrogate him. I’d dismissed his words as boozy hyperbole, but the reality was, any one of my sources could have been someone spinning false stories of spliced families and sodden dreams” (207).

There are universal truths regardless of where a narrative originates or how it changes from person to person. That business of “spinning false stories” could easily apply to conversations with anyone here in the States.

The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba, by Julia Cooke. Seal Press, A Member of the Perseus Books Group. 2014.