Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Jennifer Moxley, _The Sense Record and other poems_

SO WHAT ARE we to make of this -- some poems in strict iambic pentameter, a couple of sonnets, allusions to classical myth, quotations from Wordsworth, Whitman, William Cullen Bryant (!), even syntactical inversion and rhyme ("Songs /unlike a virus have grown in this season / of record rare, they sound an echo long / in repose and leave conflicted reason / to its bafflement") -- and yet this is not a book by Gjertrud Schnackenberg.  It even seems in some ways 180 degrees away from Gjertrud Schnackenberg.

I bought this having been intrigued by Moxley's The Line, which had its elegances and symmetries but seemed plainly enough born of an out-there poetic that would have no truck with such traditional formal properties as turn up in The Sense Record.  And yet...those very properties end up seeming audacious in Moxley's hands.  Perhaps because she alludes not only to Wordsworth and Bryant but also to Verlaine, Césaire, Creeley, and John Wieners, but even more because of lines like these from "The Ambition of Art":

[...] constructed oblivion laid out lettristic
in heavy regular beautiful beats, arc of an entreaty -- but I
hate this dream and I hate its vanity.

A simultaneous attraction/repulsion for traditional form is more interesting than either an attraction or a repulsion would be, or so it seems to me.  The same poem ends:

Not a slight adjustment in vision, nor a new world view,
nor tradition's exhaustion restored infinitum
nor the same old encoded line but... can I say it?
Will meaning suffice?  Notwithstanding our friendships
and family we drift, cut throats in quest of credentials,
yet the mind is the life that will die by consent 
to the hand but in strategy held, let liberty's pitfall
engulf us, if the night must fall then...

Why write poetry, why work so hard at it, why sacrifice other important human considerations to it, why anguish over whether it is good or not -- such questions hover behind the lines and are not answered so much as accepted, clearsightedly, without swooning, maybe a bit of melodrama but earned melodrama, I think, if there is such a thing, in a volume in which Moxley restores tradition without succumbing to it, deals out those same old encoded lines while knowing what she most wants is somehow beyond them.  In her skill in a medium she is not certain she trusts, she reminds me again, as in The Line, of Laura Riding.

I expect I will be returning to this book, especially for "The Ambition of Art," "The Second Winter," "Behind the Orbits," and most especially for "The Sense Record," from which I quote here:

Why must I alone account
for those I have known all too briefly.
To feel their psychic egress
I would as much deny
were it not for my suspicion
that built into intelligence
lies some strange quadrant
of a fractured Heaven
or Hell, an individual memory complex
stretched across the globe
vanished-existence maps
destroyed by the nonchalant amnesia
necessary to live.

Fractured... and cold and rook-delighting, perhaps?  What a surprise to find a whiff of the Yeatsian here.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Gary Lutz, _I Looked Alive_

SO WHY IS this book not even in print when it ought to be on every must-read list for contemporary fiction?  Used copies start at $46.49, according to Amazon.com, so some canny publisher ought to get on it right now.

Lutz advocates usually mention his sentences, and with unusually good reason.  You have never seen anything like them.   Precision veering into vagueness, confession overtaking evasion, clarity trying to wring its own neck...a Lutz sentence is often a story all by itself.  "For we were brother and younger sister, cobelligerents on the centerpiece of a pushed-apart sectional sofa, and I told her, naturally, that when it had happened to me, the 'friend' was a boy with a disadvantaging face, big and round, much of it still to be filled in, and before the day was out I had gone sick for the first venereal do-gooder to come my way."

Most of the stories here are written in the first person, with narrators that vary somewhat in age, gender, and circumstances, but the Lutz-sentence is not about capturing the way anyone talks ("She was a woman of punctual life-tides, ate right, had suffered at all the right  hands"). There is a lot of adapting a word from one part of speech to another in novel clusters of morphemes ("...one part of her would be arisen, pivotal, summonsy, awag -- a chancing hand, perhaps, or gleamed, unsecretful ankle").  There are the disjunctions and dislocations of modernism, but without the sense that all will sort itself out once we crack the code.

The collection, Lutz's second, is dedicated, as his first was as well, to Gordon Lish, which may be why I at times one thought of Raymond Carver.  Lutz's characters, like Carver's, tend to be at the end of their strings, long out of good options, which were never plentiful anyway.  As in Carver, a sadness too deep for tears rises off the page.  

But there is no other sad like Lutz's sad. Character after character at some imponderable distance from the other people in their lives, from the conditions of their existence, from their own bodies and those bodies' preposterous needs.  The wish to articulate the truth of this alienation struggles painfully with resentment at having to know it or name it at all.  The characters seem to be trying to get away from their stories in the process of telling them, handling the toxic stuff of their lives with the thick padded gloves of the Lutz-sentence, which somehow also manages to leave that stuff as naked and exposed as it could be.

Doesn't sound like much fun, I know, which perhaps answers the question of why the book is out of print.  But Gary Lutz is a writer we need.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Adrian Tomine, _Shortcomings_

NOT THAT I read every graphic novel out there, but I've read a handful of particularly good ones -- Maus, of course, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, Craig Thompson's Blankets, Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, Charles Burns's Black Hole, and now this -- and I'm starting to wonder: is the realistic graphic novel (excluding, that is, the superhero and sci fi  and fantasy and noir stuff) always going to be about childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood?

Tomine's book is a sharply observed and subtly narrated study of the dissolution of a romantic relationship between two Asian-Americans in their 20s.  Our main focus is Ben Tanaka, intelligent but touchy, sarcastic, and lacking any obvious talents or ambitions.  He is preoccupied with the idea of sex with white girls, but anxious about the size of his penis (a point signalled not only by the title but also by a ruler running along the bottom of the hardback cover binding). This preoccupation annoys his girlfriend Miko, as well it might, as does his indifference to her ambitions and his unwillingness to generate any of his own.  

Miko's departure to New York City for an internship produces a farewell scene so awkward and tense that it feels like a breakup; Ben later drops in unannounced in New York City to see how things stand and discovers that in fact, yep, it's over, and goes home.

Favorite detail: the visually rhyming infidelities in the upper right hand corners of pages 65 and 95.

Favorite character: neither Ben nor Miko, both of whom are a bit exasperating, but Ben's best friend, Alice Kim, grad student at Mills College and take-no-prisoners lesbian.  But how did Ben, who is a pill most of the time, ever become such good friends with someone as smart, saucy, bold, and grounded as Alice?  

A fine graphic novel, but I'm still wondering, are we ever going to get graphic novels about middle-aged people?  Even people who are middle-aged (Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, Alison Bechdel) seem to focus on childhood and youth.  Is that because comics, no matter what, are bound in so many ways to youth?

Well, there's always Harvey Pekar and, occasionally, Chris Ware...

Garry Wills, _Head and Heart: American Christianities_

GARRY WILLS IS, I believe, incapable of writing an uninteresting book, and I say that having read something like fifteen of them.  The lightly borne learning, the handsome prose, the cultural breadth... who else could have written so persuasively about Augustine, Lincoln, and John Wayne?

Head and Heart, a survey of the intersections of American religious life with American political life from colonial times to the present, is far from uninteresting, but to my mind Wills has been more interesting about the same subjects elsewhere, especially in Under God.  That book was focused more on its own moment (roughly, the election of 1988) than on the past, but Wills skillfully folded in enough history to give that book almost as much historical depth as this one has, so for a longtime Wills reader Head and Heart often gives one a feeling of déjà lu.

The opposition signalled in the title is between the United States as liberal, Enlightenment undertaking, religiously congruent with  the deism of the founders or Emersonian Unitarianism or the mainline liberal Protestantism of Reinhold Niebuhr, and the United States as God's new chosen people, religiously congruent with the New England Puritans, the Great Awakenings, the current religious right.  Wills, drawing with broad strokes, portrays the former as intelligent but dry and brittle, the later as juicily passionate but dim and bigoted.  Typically the two tendencies are at odds, but when they ally -- as he argues they did in the abolition movement and the civil rights movement -- the U.S. lives up to its conception of itself.

Wills then is all for the occasional bracing infusion of religion into public life and debate, we might say, but he is also and crucially all for separation of church and state, so the last section of the book is a gloves-off drubbing of the Bush administration's trampling of that principle, and a fully deserved one.  The richest part of the book, I'd say, if like me you happen to have already read Under God and Wills's books on 18th and 19th century American politics.

Monday, January 5, 2009

David Ohle, _Motorman_

I HAD NEVER heard of Ohle until quite recently, when I read a review of his newest book, The Pisstown Chaos.  The reviewer devoted almost as much space to discussing this one, Ohle's first, as he did to the new one, so I thought, "hmm, perhaps that's the one to read." And so I acquired a copy of Motorman, first published by Knopf in 1972 and now in print again thanks to 3rd Bed and Calamari Press.  Three cheers for them.

Motorman fits loosely (very loosely indeed) into the post-apocalyptic genre, with comic and surreal streaks. The number of suns and moons in the sky varies, as does the number of one's hearts. No information of any sort from any source is reliable, and a large part of the population are "jellyheads," barely functional, continually leaking, vaguely ominous.

Our hero is named Moldenke.  Much of the novel is his trek through "the bottoms" to reach the clever, benevolent Burnheart, whose generally cheerful, encouraging letters are interspersed throughout.  Progress towards Burnheart is impeded by the choleric, hectoring Bunce, whose irritating habit it is to echo sardonically whatever Moldenke says:

"I'm beginning to itch."
"He's beginning to itch."
"Sores on the underthigh."
"Sores on the underthigh, he says."

Moldenke is also encumbered with help from one Roquette, who sometimes insists he is Roquelle, and who may be Bunce (he occasionally falls into the echo trick). He is kept moving not only by the hope of finding Burnheart but also by the hope of reconnecting with his girlfriend, Cock Roberta, whose letters also occur in the text from time to time, sometimes with the punctuation spelled out ("Indent, Big Y, You forgot to remember me after the War, period"), which has a strangely disquieting effect.  

We never learn whether Moldenke finds Burnheart or Roberta, or what disaster visited this world, or even whether Moldenke is the motorman of the title -- he visits a "motor room" in chapter 55, and seems familiar with the workings, but we don't know what the motor runs or how he acquired his familiarity with it.  During the Mock War?  At the Texaco National Gauzeworks?  We don't even know whether the information and documents we are given are provided in chronological or some other order.

With all these questions left unanswered, why is the book so sad, so funny, so grim, so comical, so lyrical, so readable? How does this structure of language and imagination hold together as enchantingly as it does? Brief as it is, less than 150 pages, it has more to it than any other post-apocalypto I can think of.

My edition of Motorman has a great introduction by Ben Marcus, which among other points usefully insists that fiction writing, like any art, needs experimenters, and without them will fail to thrive.  This book is certainly experimental, yet the copyright right page also tells us that an excerpt was published in Esquire. Ah, those were the days.  What publication with Esquire's circa 1970 circulation would come anywhere near publishing something like Motorman now?

Friday, January 2, 2009

B. S. Johnson, _Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry_

I READ ALBERT Angelo a few years ago and liked it, which led to my picking this one up (a steal at four dollars), and I decided it was time I got around to reading it.

It was published in 1973, the year Johnson committed suicide, partly, some surmise, out of frustration with his fiction's failure to find readers.  His fiction takes meta-fictional turns involving mockery of ordinary readerly expectations for fiction, so its being none too popular does not surprise.  Albert Angelo, for instance, is about a teacher in a fairly rough working-class London school, a kind of grimier To Sir with Love, or Up the Down Staircase with chilblains and weak tea, but after about 100 pages of this the novel suddenly turns into an essay on autobiographical fiction and the folly of decking one's experiences out as a "novel."

Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry is at heart a fable about the eternal enmity between employer and employee, which another writer could have decked out with enough description, scene-setting, character development and such to fill 400 pages, but Johnson's gestures in these directions are utterly gestural, brushed by with a sigh: "An attempt should be made to characterise Christie's appearance. I do so with diffidence, in the knowledge that such physical descriptions are rarely of value in a novel" (51).  Or, announcing a passage describing Christie's thoughts: "For the following passage it seems to me necessary to attempt transcursion into Christie's mind; an illusion of transcursion, that is, of course, since you know only too well in whose mind it all really takes place" (23).  The narrator wearily confesses that characters have been invented just to further a plot point, companies given names only to provide a thin veneer of verisimilitude.  Near the end, Christie and the narrator have a frank talk about what it will mean for Christie that his story is soon to complete its course.

All good fun, this, but as in Flann O'Brien or Beckett the narrative hi-jinks contrast with a prevailing sadness.  Christie's learning double-entry book-keeping in the early chapters, undertaken to give him a modest chance of earning a secure living, gives him the idea that he is owed something -- owed something, that is, for the unending series of large and small humiliations, the constant condescension, the routine dehumanisation that attends being a cog in a business concern.  To balance accounts, he begins a campaign of pranks that escalates into sabotage that escalates into murder...a very potent political fable, I'd say, which Johnson is far too knowing a writer to turn into any sort of latter-day Upton Sinclair or Jack London novel.
He is constantly deflating his own balloon, keeping it from turning into the gaseous naturalistic novel it threatens to become. 

I keep hearing about Jonathan Coe's biography of Johnson -- it's time I gave it a look, I think.