Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, August 15, 2016

Rick Perlstein, _Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America_

THE SECOND VOLUME in Perlstein's superb trilogy on the electoral success of the mainstream right in the second half of the 20th century. The first volume, mainly on Goldwater, is excellent, the third, mainly on Reagan, I have not yet read, but this one, mainly on Nixon, is the key one for the summer of 2016, when Trump seems to be borrowing handfuls of pages from Nixon's playbook: fear of the other, jacked-up pride in an imaginary national past, anxiety about losing status, anger at disregard for traditional values, and big cracking barrels of white ressentiment.

Nixon parlayed this hand into one narrow and one overwhelming presidential election victory--tsk, if he had only been confident enough to know he could beat McGovern without resorting to cheating and breaking the law, he might have served out all of that second term.

That lack of confidence--that feeling that the cool kids are going deny him his due, that people have it in for him, that he will only prevail if he uses every trick in the book and invents a few more--is Perlstein's leading theme in analyzing Nixon. His shorthand for it is based on the names of two clubs from Nixon's alma mater, Whittier College: the Franklins, the classic student leader types, relatively well-born and beloved of faculty and administration, and the we-try-harder Orthogonians, the beta males.  Guess which one Nixon was in.  Right. But with him on their team, the Orthogonians took over most of student government by his senior year.

This is why Nixon played the ressentiment tactic so well.  He got it. He knew it.  He felt it. It was in his bones.

Trump, however, is obviously faking it. He knows it's powerful, he know the words and a bit of the tune, he knows how to perform it, but he doesn't feel it. The man radiates entitlement. He exudes privilege. You, sir, are no Orthogonian. You have to be Nixon to make Nixon work.  Or Ted Cruz. Cruz has got the Nixon thing, in spades.

For my money, the great Nixon book will always be Garry Wills's Nixon Agonistes, a blend of on-the-spot and in-the-moment reporting, research, historical and philosophical acumen, psychological insight, and brilliant style--and throw in the drama of the Wills's own evolution, in the mid-1960s, from National Review wunderkind to liberal stalwart. But Perlstein has the advantage of knowing how the story turned out, so you should read them both, and there's room for at least three great books on Nixon, so let's throw in as well Robert Coover's The Public Burning.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Friedrich Schlegel, _Lucinde_, trans. Peter Firchow

I MAY BE among the every first to read this mainly in order to be up to speed for reading John Beer's new book.

I came to it out of obscure duty, then, but what a delight it turned out to be. Brief--only about ninety pages in this edition--but a wild ride. Published in 1799, Lucinde is "about" Julian and his…wife? lover?…Lucinde, and ignores all good principles of sound novelistic construction, past, present, and yet to come, with a thoroughness that is so complete as to be gleeful.

Like a good many of the novels that might broadly be called the progeny of Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther--Constant's Adolphe, Senancour's Obermann, Balzac's Louis Lambert, on up to Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and Teju Cole's Open City--Lucinde is less about narrative, plot, character, or setting than it is about the contours of a particular sensibility as it matures.

A case can be made for its structural coherence, I suppose, and translator Firchow, who wrote the introduction for this \volume, tries his best to make it, but the great delight of the book for me lay in its willingness to veer anywhere it wanted whenever it wanted, to take up lines of thought and abruptly drop them, to mix genres, to explain nothing save what it spontaneously felt like explaining.

Someone really ought to get the English translation of this back into print.  Used copies are going for forty and fifty dollars a shot, I noticed.

I think it was Morse Peckham who argued that Enlightenment thinkers were persuaded that human beings were best understood by analyzing them in some neutral, ordinary condition, but that Romantic thinkers were convinced that extremity--madness, criminality--or some other kind of marginalization from the normal--childhood, exile, poverty--revealed more authentically what the human was. Julian is a man in love, and the novel is largely about that peculiar exaltation, a deeply unusual state that may reveal more about us than our usual, customary condition does.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Lucy Ives, _The Worldkillers_

ELUSIVE, INTRIGUING, IVESIAN. Do the three texts of The Worldkillers constitute a triptych? Or are they best approached independently? The energy circulating in the book is not going to lay all its cards on the table, so you will have to make your bet and take your chances.

"My Thousand Novel" is a series of poems that feels like a sequence--they did appear as a chapbook (Cosa Nostra Editions), they do all center on a distinctively configured first person speaker, and there is a gathering intensity that flickers through jokiness, anger, and exhaustion until in the final poem ("To Find the Particular Place Then to Hold onto It") it gets to some new and terribly clear space:

Have you ever thought it is strange how you have to talk to so many people each day who don't need           your existence
Who don't need your weird existence, like
I don't need yours, reader
O push the clouds away, O push away the thick silk mat of me coming towards you
Push now the barrier in your mouth
A whole hill of tissue a whole room
We either say no words or weep into

Still...there is an aleatory quality, or an anarchic streak, or perhaps even some Rousselian composition strategy ticking away here, well muffled, that makes one wonder whether just how sequential the sequence is. What is going on?

"The Worldkillers," middle panel in our triptych, is a novel--a short one (fifty-some pages) whose chapters sometimes seem like prose poems, but a novel, perhaps a Balzacian one with its interest in furniture, perhaps a David Mitchell one with its hints of an elaborate mathematical puzzle, perhaps a Victorian thriller with its demanding, imperious ghost, perhaps a country-house-weekend murder mystery with its spectrum of eccentric guests. Or..is it not so much a novel as a quick, weird tour of the novelistic?

Last section--"On Description," subtitled "An Essay," but here too some sections could readily be taken for prose poems ("The eye remains fixed within the face and yet certain entities entice it, the anticipation of skin, something sinks in cloudy liquid"). The essay is on literary description, exactly as advertised...yet in a book that elsewhere seems to have only an attenuated, fifth-cousin relationship to mimesis, representation, and vraisemblance, why are we getting such careful, searching, earnest statements about description? Why, after the poems flowering out of their own verbal chain reactions, after the surreal tale of the archetypal mad scientist's dim assistant, do we have this essay's precisions about the mimetic, standing perfectly perpendicular to everything else in the book?

Obviously, I was left with questions. Which, truth to tell, is how I most like to be left.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Nikos Kazantzakis, _The Last Temptation of Christ_, trans. P. A. Bien

HAD TO READ this for reasons it would take too long to explain. I won't say I disliked it, but I will say I was happy to finish.

As you may recall from the controversy that greeted Scorsese's film adaptation, Kazantzakis does not give us the Christ of Christianity; that divine scapegoat, he thinks, is mainly the work of Paul. Kazantzakis's Jesus is a visionary and mystic, animated by a vision of universal love, who is goaded into a confrontation with Jewish and Roman authorities by supposed allies (principally Judas), with famously terrible consequences. His mother keeps wishing he would settle down and giver her some grandchildren.

The title refers to what became the most notorious segment of the film: the Adversary gives Jesus, dying on the cross, the opportunity to just disappear into a normal life as carpenter, husband (to both Mary and Martha), and father. Jesus feels the pull of domesticity but nonetheless elects to die on the cross, and, thanks to Paul, becomes the Christ of Christianity.

This is interesting...the novel just seems long (487 pages in my paperback edition), too many descriptions of the village streets, too many lengthy arguments with Judas. Say what you like about the gospels, they are at least lean.

I wonder what Scorsese saw in this. The film comes from a stretch when he was taking a lot of swings at pitches outside his wheelhouse (Edith Wharton, Kundun), and his film of this novel seems to me another such. At least he cast Harvey Keitel as Judas...now, if only he had cast DeNiro as Jesus and Joe Pesci as Pilate, we might have had something.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Noelle Kocot, _Soul in Space_

ANOTHER GOOD ONE from Kocot. Four sections. The first has a lot of short poems with short lines, often with phrases rather than complete sentences, clipped, not giving a whole lot away but even so with stray lines of direct address: "That's all I got," "My mind is not right" (or is that just citing Lowell?), "It will all be okay, I promise."

Part two: a nine-page poem, most of it statements about "it," but the pronoun has no antecedent until the second page: "I will be mad. / / I will be mad because it is my mother."  So, in some ways, a familiar kind of poem about an aging parent ("It liked looking at pictures of cats / On the computer"), but the simple alienation-effect of the pronoun brings out a very particular aspect of this experience (I can attest), one's intimate involvement in a difficult process that one can do little to alleviate, that one can sometimes only watch.

That's the thing with Kocot (for me). She creates a charged intersection of the confessional and the surreal. I wish we could revive that grand old term "expressionist," but we're probably too far down the road for that.

Part three: perhaps my favorite, actually, all sonnets (nineteen), exuberant in their verbal invention yet also strictly containbed by the form--another good example of two divergent things happening at once, pulling aginst each other, yet also strengthening each other.

The wolf howled at the flock, linguistics
Didn't matter. I spout tubes today from
My head, the trees, leaves, all over the place.
Another blue valley in a starboard eye-socket,

A paper touch of something else.

The language is in flower, but the kenosis is ongoing: "I am not finished emptying myself, even though / I thought I was." Nonetheless (unlike James Wright?), "I have not wasted my life."

Part four: harder to characterize. Seems connected to part one, but more expansive, perhaps more ambitious, still streaked with pain, but with a weary sort of spirituality;

          Is this a 
message? A message to whom? Is it
To you, who polishes me like a pearl?

The acknowledgements page indicates that the book's title is the translation of a Jarrell poem, "Seele in Raum," which has a couple of lines that might account for this book's hybrid of mystery and candor:

            This is senseless?
Shall I make sense or shall I tell the truth?
Choose either--I cannot do both.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Ashbery and Radiohead?

JUST A COINCIDENCE, probably, but when I noticed that the track sequence on the new Radiohead album (which is quite good, I think) was based on alphabetical order, I wondered if they were following the example set by the tables of contents in Ashbery's Can You Hear, Bird and Planisphere.

Radiohead may be about the only band out there I would suspect of nicking an idea from Ashbery.

Interestingly, this random principle, as in the case of the books of Mr. A. himself, turns out to generate a persuasive, even moving sequence, from "Burn the Witch" to the at-long-last studio version of "True Love Waits."

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

John Seabrook, _The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory_

THIS SUMMER I read two books by New Yorker staff writers concerning small, narrowly-focused bands of like-minded individuals who were exercising a disproportionate and not very happy influence over the hearts and minds of the United States.  This was one of them; Jane Mayer's Dark Money was the other.

Max Martin and Dr. Luke are doing less damage to the culture of our dear republic than the Koch brothers are, to be sure.  Seabrook himself, despite having grown up with the same rock and roll classics that I did, finds the whole Britney-Backstreet-Ke$ha-Katy Perry spectrum embraceable. Daily drives with his son led to a kind of Damascus moment during Flo Rida's "Right Round," and  he discusses Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone" and Rihanna's "Umbrella" with the relish of an enthusiast.

He's not alone. Joshua Clover's occasional Nation column takes contemporary pop as seriously as Dylan was ever taken, and a recent issue of n+1 had a long piece on Drake.  Carl Wilson's book on Celine Dion takes for granted that the art/commerce distinction, as it affects pop music, deconstructed itself ages ago.

It's just never going to work for me, though.  Having started listening to the radio when "Like a Rolling Stone" and "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" were normal fare, having signed on for the Velvets, Bowie, the Stooges, and punk in my twenties, having claimed the Smiths and the Replacements in  my thirties, I was just plain immune to the strains of Britney and Spice Girls that seeped out of the kids' rooms during my forties.

Nonetheless, I devoured The Song Machine, a gracefully-written triumph of reporting that gets behind the scenes and explains lucidly and unjudgmentally just how the current purveyors of pop go about their business. For me, the real sonic landscape of our time is elsewhere than in Katy Perry and Taylor Swift (an elsewhere populated by Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, P. J. Harvey, Johnny Marr, Courtney Barnett, and Anton Newcomb, among others), but I was grateful for the tour offered in Seabrook's book of the sonic landscape that most of the country inhabits.