Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Philip Roth, _Why Write? Collected Nonfiction 1960-2013_

Much as I love Library of America--I think I own about thirty--I did not get any of the Roth volumes because I already own all his books, and shelf space is enough of a problem around here as it is without getting into duplicates. Had to bite on this one, though, as it is the only way I will have in book form the last 20-odd years of prose pieces, collected here as "Explanations" (accompanying Shop Talk and most of Reading Myself and Others). A hundred and some pages is in effect what I got for my $35, but what the hell. It's Roth, and Roth is priceless.

I sat down to read through "Explanations" after I saw the news that he was gone. A good many of the selections are speeches he made accepting various awards (why did the news coverage so often mention his not getting the Nobel? A peculiar thing to dwell on, I think). He is unfailingly eloquent, generous, gracious. He shows some spark in the open letter to Wikipedia on the topic of "real life models" of his fictional characters, a subject on which he often got sparky. But he's in a benign  mood in most of these pieces, and even unbends enough to acknowledges that Murray Ringgold, the exemplary teacher of I Married a Communist, was largely based on one of his own teachers from Weequahic High, Bob Lowenstein.

So, my mind wandered to a topic possibly even less á propos than his not getting the Nobel. With even such apparently benign figures as Charlie Rose, Bill Cosby, and even Garrison Keillor getting called on their sexually predatory activities, it becomes interesting that no one has talked about being abused or harassed by Philip Roth. Apparently (not that I've read it) he even comes off acceptably in the new Lisa Halliday novel. Could it be--even though, to judge from his fiction, he had one of American letters' busier libidos and more shameless imaginations--that the creator of Alexander Portnoy, David Kepesh, and (for crying out loud) Mickey Sabbath was a perfect gentleman?

Having said that, I have to keep in mind that something could emerge at any time. But he must not have been a Harvey Weinstein, even though Harvey Weinstein seems like someone Roth could have invented.

By the way, why was Reading Myself and Others not included in its entirety? The exclusion of the Nixon-related pieces I understand, to a degree, although I do not approve. The exclusion of the bracingly acerbic unsent letter to Diana Trilling on her review of Portnoy's Complaint ("Document Dated July 27, 1969") I neither understand nor approve. The absence of "The Newark Public Library" and "My Baseball Years"--two of my very favorite Roth essays--I genuinely regret.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Michael Dickman, _Flies_

THE JAMES LAUGHLIN winner of 2010, So far, all of the James Laughlin winners I have read have been worthwhile, but this one stood out. Hard to put down, even... not because reading it was a sheer delight but because it was so much a whole that I felt I had to finish the ride, so to speak, not do it in installments.  As a volume, Flies emphatically feels more like a project than like a collection. Just as listening to an album like Astral Weeks seems to mean listening to all the songs in just that order, not dropping in to hear just "Madame George," so Flies feels almost like it is one poem.

The individual poems resemble each other formally, being largely of short, truncated lines, with one or two lines breaking out and running longer than the actual width of the page. There is a lot of shared vocabulary, and images recur--birds, trees, the sea, the color green, teeth. About midway in the volume is a sequence called "Stations," evoking the Stations of the Cross; the poems before this one have an anticipatory tension, the ones after it a post-catastrophe calm, "Stations" itself seeming like an impossibly sustained moment, a clock ticking unbearably with an arrested minute hand.

The jacket copy states that "the poems grapple with the suicide of an older brother," and that fact certainly provides a strong narrative strand if we want one. Do we? By contrast the "About the Author" statement in the book itself is all reticence: "Michael Dickman was born and raised in Portland, Oregon."

Without the jacket's prompting, I certainly would have read the book as about a child or about the memory of childhood, and would have assumed that a grievous loss, probably a death, had cut that childhood in two, but I wouldn't have concluded that it grapples with the suicide of an older brother. For that matter, the trauma is more conjured up and made to appear before us than it is grappled with, I would say.

In that respect, Flies reminds me of Mary Jo Bang's Elegy, which likewise had a compelling backstory that interviewers and reviewers and a certain kind of reader could fasten onto, but that did not really do all that much to account for the hold the poems had on me. (Maybe it was me who was being grappled with, whom the poems wouldn't let go.)

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Lucy Ives, _Impossible Views of the World_

A GEM THAT kept me guessing. The first sentence--"The day Paul Coral vanished, it snowed"--seems to come from mystery-thriller territory, and we are, indeed, going to learn what became of Paul Coral. But we also find out on the first page that Paul was the narrator's co-worker at a museum, a museum whose guards "had a fierce and litigious union," so we are going to being taking some side-trips into the genre of institutional satire (e.g., Sam Lipsyte's The Ask, Cate Dicharry's Fine Art of Fucking Up, and campus novels in general), and these too turn out to be entertaining.

But there's more. Our narrator, Stella Krakus, is going through a divorce, has a challenging relationship with her quite successful mother, and is trying to figure out the scope of a brief but tantalizing affair she had with an on-the-way-up colleague at the museum...so we have a "woman-at-a personal-crossroads novel going on as well.

But there's even more than that. Sorting through the documents left behind by the vanished Paul  leads to several new investigative byways in the history of the museum and its donors that our narrator, with her Ph. D. in art history, is more than up to sleuthing through. So for a few chapters we are almost into Crying of Lot 49 territory, piecing together historical clues to a rhizome of inter-related stories about wealth, fantasy literature, feminism, the avant-garde, and art patronage from the 1820s to the 1950s.

This novel's Tristero, though, turns out to be more a message for Stella than a global conspiracy, a message Paul (before vanishing) left inscribed in the archive for her to discover, and it promises to get her out of the labyrinth and into something more like fresh air, slate scrubbed clean of butthead husbands and manipulative colleagues.

I hope Ives is going to keep writing poetry, but she also writes a dandy novel.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Catherine Barnett, _The Game of Boxes_

JAMES LAUGHLIN WINNER for 2012. The first of its three sections ("Endless Forms Most Beautiful") is my favorite. Sixteen of its thirty poems (all brief, few more than twenty lines) are in the "I" voice of a single mother taking care of a young son, the other fourteen (all titled "Chorus") in a "we" voice recalling childhood. The "we" poems seem based more on memory of the speaker's own childhood than on an attempt to imagine her way into her son's perspective, and that feels very true to me--virtually every day of caring for my kids put me in mind of something from my own childhood, sometimes in an overwhelmingly immediate Proust's-madeleine kind of way. The counterpoint in this section is delicate but effective.

I liked the rest of the book, too, though not quite as much. The middle section, "Of All Faces," has just one poem, "Sweet Double, Talk-Talk,"  a suite of 24 short poems about a love affair. What was most distinct for me as I read was that the sequence began with "you," then shifted to "he," going from giddy-ecstactic direct address to the lover ("If you want I'll / cover you with my body") to somewhat more distant and doubting speculation about him ("His face is a clue to me but I don't know / what it means"). This did not seem to bode well. I hope things worked out.

The final section in some ways seems to pick up from the first, but the "we" voice is gone, as though it has now been incorporated into the "I" voice as the son gets older, perhaps a bit more independent, so that the "I" voice has time to focus on more of its own concerns.

It's a tender, vulnerable book. I'm grateful to it for reminding me of something I had forgotten, how my late dad would play the game of boxes with me when we were trapped somewhere boring.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Jillian Weise, _The Book of Goodbyes_

THE JAMES LAUGHLIN winner of 2013. Not exactly light-hearted--a good many of the poems are about being in a love triangle with a man referred to as "Big Logos" and B.L.'s other girlfriend, and quite a few are about living with a disability--but even though the situations depicted are painful, a vein of comedy keeps rising to the surface. A dark comedy, certainly:

         The thing about him is

he keeps being the thing. You could never 
count on him. I did. 

That's from the first poem, "Up Late and Likewise," and to me that "I did" almost sounded like a stand-up punchline, to be accompanied with a flourish on a floor tom. Same with "Poem for His Girl," which apparently addresses the speaker's rival for the affections of Big Logos:

I'll tell you which panties
look good on you

psychedelic plaid
with ruffles on the waist

patriotic polka dot

This has a certain stand-up quality too, if we imagine a set up like, "wouldn't it be amazing if you got to give the other woman in your triangle advice about her underwear? You know what I would tell her?" (I'm guessing the advice here is a form of sabotage.)

The darkly-funniest poem, I think, is "Café Loop," in which two writers are having lunch and gossiping about a third writer who may well be Jillian Weise.

Oh, she's had it easy all right.
She should come out and state

the disability. She actually is very
dishonest. I met her once at AWP.

Tiny thing. Limps a little. I mean not
really noticeable. What will you have?

This poem rings all the more true in that anyone willing to crack wise about the things Weise cracks wise about is going to get gossiped about. Even the very affecting final poem, "Elegy for Zahra Baker," the book's longest, which an endnote explains "engages with the case of Zahra Baker whose remains were found scattered across Caldwell County, North Carolina, in 2010," veers into black humor: "Zahra Baker is still missing. I better write some more notes to her before she's dead."

And then, while the poems that one expects to be anguished are often tartly funny, three narrative poems about finches, which at least initially seem to be aiming at a whimsical, La Fontaine animal-fable vein, turn out to be anguished: "I've gone / over the branches and can't find you."

I found myself wondering whether the Josh Bell to whom the book is dedicated is (a) the famous violinist or (b) Big Logos or (c) both. I think he may well be Big Logos, at least, since the dedication is followed by the phrase "immanentizing the eschaton," Eric Voegelin's curt dismissal of any and all utopian projects, and a great nickname for anyone into Eric Voegelin would be "Big Logos."

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Susan Faludi,. _In the Darkroom_

SUSAN FALUDI'S FATHER had a late-life sex-change operation and seems to have thought that his daughter Susan, a highly successful journalist and author, was just the person to write a book about her experience.

There were obstacles, however. Faludi's parents divorced when she was a teenager; the last years were grim, her dad occasionally violent. He had barely been in touch with Faludi in the 20-some intervening years. Moreover, in becoming Stéfanie Faludi, her father has embraced an armful of gender stereotypes that Susan Faludi, as a feminist, has spent her career combating. Finally, Stéfanie was determined to control the narrative, and at first simply stonewalled any questions about any aspect of her life save the one she wanted to talk about, the rightness of her decision to become a woman.

Stéfanie did not really want to talk about being Steven Faludi, for instance, or how that family broke up, nor about being Istvan Friedman, the son of prosperous, socially prominent Jews in Budapest in the 1930s, nor about hiding from the Nazis in 1944 and 1945, nor about being Jewish at all (she thinks of herself as Hungarian, and is especially attached to the Franz Joseph days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, before she was born), nor about the current Hungarian government's willingness to fan the still-smoldering embers of anti-Semitism for political advantage...

...however, Faludi's patience and persistence gradually (the narrative covers ten years) get to all those topics and more, as well as the complex process of electing to change one's sex and learning to live on  the other side of the gender line.  The book ends up being about many dimensions of identity, about what a subtle, evolving, negotiable thing it can be, but also also how it can be an instrument of power and coercion, as with Nazis and (apparently) the Fidesz party in Hungary.

What will really stay with me, though, is how Faludi's relationship with her father develops over the course of the book. Faludi does not offer much commentary on the relationship is changing, but carefully presents her interaction with her father so that we see progress being made, wounds being healed, love finally struggling into expression.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Nicholson Baker, _The Way the World Works_

HERE IT IS, ten years to the day since the very first Loads of Learned Lumber post. I haven't even changed the layout once in all that time--so I hope it has gone from embarrassingly outdated on through mortifyingly obsolete and back around to nostalgically quaint. At least I've been faithful: 595 posts in ten years, better than one a week.

The blog's title, you may recognize, is a phrase from Pope's Dunciad, a phrase that was moreover the chief subject of "Lumber," the brilliant final essay in Nicholson Baker's first essay collection, The Size of Thoughts. That first post, back on May 21, 2008 was on Baker's Human Smoke, so this seemed a good opportunity to plunk down and read this, his second essay collection, which has been waiting on my shelves for a few years.

As any Baker admirer (I am one) would expect, it has its share of quirky subjects ("No Step" is about the written instructions found on airplanes) and idiosyncratic phrasing (one video game is praised for Its "realistic eye blinks and moments of ecstatic mundanity," another for "the cool, insect-chirping enormity of the scrublands"; a speaker at a rally has "a thick asymmetry of graying hair"). But when Baker needs to get serious, as in responding to the critics of Human Smoke, he can ("Why I Am a Pacifist").

Favorite themes recur: memory (the Brainardian "One Summer"), the irreplaceability of card catalogs and newspaper archives, the delights of new ways of learning things (no Luddite, Baker writes appreciatively of Google and Wikipedia). The fascination with erotica reappears in "Sex and the City, circa 1840," about "a curiously fleshy moment in the history of New York publishing." Crucially, Baker's ability to evoke a powerful though ephemeral sense of fulfillment, which is what hooked me way back in the days of The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, is still strong in the last essay, "Mowing."

I may not live to see it, but I hope Baker gets a Library of America volume eventually. He may be a miniaturist, but so was Max Beerbohm, and who would deny Max his laurel crown? Besides, anyone who got Leon Wieseltier as steamed as Baker did has earned a spot in the history of American letters.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Natasha Trethewey and David Lehman, ads, _The Best American Poetry 2017_

ED HIRSCH (LAST year's guest editor) and Natasha Trethewey both strike me as good choices for this particular job, but I wish they had not been chosen in consecutive years, because their tastes run in very similar channels. Fourteen poets appear in both the 2016 and 2017 volumes, which seems to me a bit higher than average, and most of the poems first appeared in long-legacied, via media journals titled The [X] Review, where [X] = a state or a university or both. Hirsch includes more sonnets than Trethewey (but Trethewey has sonnets), Trethewey more topical poems than Hirsch (but Hirsch has topical poems), and the tilt for both is towards personal content with a bias towards the elegiac in plain-but-literate language arranged in longer sentences.

All of which makes for good reading, I acknowledge, but having these volumes back-to-back suggests the spectrum of American poetry is a lot narrower than it is. Since no poet-editor is ever, ever going to pick 75 poems that truly represent that spectrum in its fullness, I wish David Lehman would mix it up every year, as in the great Creeley-Komunyakaa-Hejinian-Muldoon run of 2002-05. I'm not going to fetch them down from the shelves to check, but I'll bet there were no years with fourteen repeaters in those volumes.

Enough griping. Sorry. It's a good collection. Trethewey includes some longer poems--her 75 poems require 170 pages to Hirsch's 146--and they're really interesting (those by Monica Youn, R. T. Smith, John Murillo, and Joyce Carol Oates deserve particular mention). A feeling of stressed-and-strained spirituality shows up frequently, in prayers (or near-prayers) by C. Dale Young and Pamela Sutton, Christian Wiman's "Prelude," and Maggie Smith's "Good Bones," which makes me wish the U.S.A. had a refrigerator, so I could put it there under a refrigerator magnet so everyone would see it every day.

Sllghtly weird thing: two different poets (Aracelis Girmay and Rowan Ricardo Phillips) use the same self-addressed imperative Elizabeth Bishop used in "One Art"--"say it." Is this a trope now?

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Joseph North, _Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History_, part two

WHAT THE DOMINANT historicist/contextualist paradigm needs to make it more truly political, North argues, is to incorporate more criticism; doing that, he claims, would involve a greater engagement with aesthetics.

Surprising, no? At first blush, it looks like North wants a rewind to the 1950s.

Not really, though. As an academic discourse, North writes, criticism was "defined precisely by the strength and directness of its connection to the world outside the academy" (5). He associates it with "public intellectuals." He does not provide much in the way of specific examples, unfortunately, but I am guessing he means  figures who wrote about literature (a) for non-specialist audiences and (b) with a view towards changing how people thought and what people did about questions of the day: Coleridge and T. S. Eliot from the right, say, Matthew Arnold and Lionel Trilling from the center, George Orwell and Dwight MacDonald from the left. (For contemporary figures, maybe Rebecca Solnit? Mark Greif?)

Neither does he means by "aesthetics" what one might immediately assumes he means. The historicist/contextualist paradigm has been pretty rough on aesthetics, seeing it (following Bourdieu and Raymond Williams) as a covertly ideological instrument. North does not disagree, but he sees that critique as really addressing only the  "idealist" aesthetics derived from Kant that saw art as disinterested, autotelic, transcendent, and such. The aesthetics he would champion would be a "materialist" aesthetics, part of an "aesthetic education."

Here, too, some specific examples would have been welcome. I kept thinking he was going  to bring up Schiller on the topic of aesthetic education, or Jacques Rancière as an example of materialist aesthetic thought, but no. The focus is strictly Anglo-American throughout, unfortunately. For my money, Rancière is exactly what North seems to be hoping for. But that's just my guess.

I think North is right that the discipline is looking for ways to step out of the historicist/contextualist paradigm--his longest chapter is full of examples of scholars pushing the envelope a bit (I certainly concur in his high opinion of D. A. Miller's book on Austen)--but, true to his premise, he does not expect the paradigm to shift until the neoliberal order cracks up (192-93). So, the paradigm may be with us for a while.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Joseph North, _Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History_, part one

NORTH POSES AN interesting question: how is it that in the last three decades, with neoliberalism ascendant (with Thatcher and Reagan) and then regnant (ever after) in society at large, a leftist, progressive methodology predominated in academic literary studies, to the near-exclusion of any rivals? Even if we acknowledge that we need a suppler, more complex sense of how culture reflects material reality than the old base-superstucture model, even if we do not expect some exact mirroring to be going on, how did this oasis of leftism survive surrounded by conservative sand dunes?

The leftist, progressive methodology North has in mind is basically what we in the USA call New Historicism, but we might call it cultural studies. Its mission is to produce cultural analysis, with particular attention to the tactics of power, to marginalized or excluded voices, to the deconstruction of dominant ideologies. He argues that from the mid- to late-eighties on, there has been little disagreement that this is the appropriate way to conduct literary studies, that this is the kind of endeavor the profession rewards.

It has prospered in the face of neoliberalism's triumph, he argues, because it is not really all that leftist or progressive after all.

It thinks of itself that way, certainly, has convinced itself of its own counter-hegemonic bona fides, but North dissents. What he calls "the historicist/contextualist paradigm" is a solution to "the problem faced by scholars who, for complex reasons, explicitly disavow themselves of any commitment to the idea of academic work as radical political praxis, but who nevertheless want to try to get ahead in a discipline where grappling with live, as opposed to merely analytic, political questions, and thus the making of political claims for one's own work, has become a necessary requirement for advancement."

A rhetoric of this kind, which by turns avowed and disavowed intentions that could be described, or critiqued, as "political," must have seemed appealing to many in the academy who were nominally on the left but whose material interests, and associated real commitments, in fact lay with the newly net-liberalized institutions that seemed to promise to support them. (93)

Sophisticated cultural analysis looks radical, sounds radical, but does not ruffle any actual material-interest feathers.

I can see what he means--but hasn't some of this work (in critical race theory or queer theory, for instance) actually made a difference? Surely it has.

Still, he has a point, I think. So what would genuinely radical work in literary studies look like? North has thought about that, too.

James Shapiro, _The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606_

MY TAKE ON this turned out to be the inside-out version of my take on its predecessor, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. The premise of 1599--excavate the archives on a particularly critical year for Shakespeare, use the findings to piece out the biographical record--did not sound all that promising to me, and I would have skipped the book had not a trusted Shakespearean colleague tipped me to it. Reading it, I was amazed. It rivaled Ellmann on Joyce for giving one a sense of the living, working writer, an accomplishment I would not have thought even remotely possible for a figure as long gone as Shakespeare.

So, I picked up The Year of Lear in high anticipation. Same method, somewhat higher stakes: change of monarch, Gunpowder Plot, Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra. Somehow, it did not work as well, for me. Shapiro certainly has his customary smart, well-grounded things to say about all the items on the above list. But Shakespeare the writer and theater man does not pop into relief with quite the same vividness.

I happen to be in the middle of Joseph North's Literary Criticism: A Political History, which argues that historicist/contextualist scholarship has dominated Anglo-American literary studies for something like two or three decades now, and I found myself wondering how, or whether, The Year of Lear fits into that particular context.

It's certainly a fine-grained account of how the historical moment in which Shakespeare wrote shaped what he wrote. It's certainly about power, resistance, ideology, and discourse...I mean, the Gunpowder Plot, come on, can you get nearer the heart of power, resistance, ideology, and power than that? But Foucault, Jameson, even Greenblatt seem far, far away as we read this (well, not recent Greenblatt, perhaps).

Is it just that Shapiro is not writing for academic peers here, but for that ever-sought, ever-elusive intelligent general reader? The book definitely engages with topics of high interest in recent Shakespeare scholarship (Catholicism, for instance), it certainly shows mastery of that scholarship, but it seems to locate itself on some quite different map.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Charlotte Brontë, _Villette_

ABOUT A YEAR ago I decided that it was wrong of me to have taught Jane Eyre several times without ever having read any of C.B.'s other novels, so I started this one.

Volume I was promising. Lucy Snowe (origins left unspecified) describes visiting the home of her godmother, Mrs. Bretton. Lucy seems a bit smitten with Mrs. Bretton's son, Graham, but before anything develops on that front she is off across the Channel to the city of Villette (a city much like Brussels) to teach English at a girls' boarding school. As we did with Jane, we see Lucy having to rely on her own wits and strength as she learns to manage the challenges of a new situation and the new people--some friendly, others not so--with whom she lives and works. One of the nicer ones is a young English doctor, known as Dr. John.

At the end of Volume I, Lucy faints, When she revives, in Volume II, she mysteriously finds herself among the furniture of her godmother. Turns out Mrs. Bretton has relocated to Villette. Hmm, bit contrived, but okay. Then it turns out that Dr. John is Graham. Whoa. Moreover, Lucy knew this the whole time but did not let us in on it.

I stopped reading at that point.

Not that I resolved never to finish the book. I picked it up again a few weeks ago and finished it. But I was just...dismayed. Lucy, Lucy! Why did you not tell us Dr. John was Graham as soon as you knew?

My dismay I attributed to the contrast with Jane Eyre. Jane sometimes can keep mum with the other characters in her novel--though her best moments are when she gives them a good clean blast of honesty--but she never conceals anything from us. We--that is, "reader"--are her best friend, her confidante, and we are regularly apostrophized, often at particularly intense moments. She tells us everything. Everything! How can we not love her?

Lucy tells us nothing. What became of your parents, Lucy? How did you get that gig in Belgium? How do you actually feel about Graham/Dr. John? About his entanglements with the spoiled rotten Ginevra Fanshawe, or the admirable but fragile-seeming Polly Bassompierre? About your teaching colleague Paul Emmanuel, about his being a devout Catholic, about his complicated circumstances? Are you even going to tell us whether he made it back from the Caribbean? (She is not.)

Jane is an open book, Lucy a locked box--harder to love, but eventually I did: tender here, flinty there, proud, principled, resilient, smart. But likes to keep her secrets.

And that scene where she walks around the night-time festival tripping on opium--best thing in all Brontë, to my mind.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Elvis Costello, _Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink_, part two

WHAT TURNED THE Jazzmaster-wielding nihilist on the cover of this volume to the bemused old pro with a vintage acoustic who graces its back? Costello seems inclined to date the shift to the repercussions of that drunken night in the Ohio Holiday Inn bar where he accosted Stephen Stills and slung around the n-word in reference to Ray Charles and James Brown.

The books lacks an index, and is only roughly in chronological order, so I'm going to tell you that the episode gets its own brief chapter, Chapter 21, "What Do I Have to Do to Make You Love Me?" (I think the title is quoting Elton John's "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word," but I'm not positive.)

Let's take a moment to remember where Elvis Costello stood early in 1979. Armed Forces had just come out, his third brilliant album in a row. For just about everyone I knew who took music seriously, Costello was the songwriter. Bob Dylan and Lou Reed were still capable of gems like "Señor" and "Street Hassle," but their best work seemed  to be behind them. Joni Mitchell was re-inventing herself as a jazzer. Having put out an album produced by, of all people, Phil Spector, Leonard Cohen seemed out of ideas. Bruce Springsteen, who had been the future of rock and roll for about five years at that point, seemed stuck in Spector-meets-S.E. Hinton pop operettas. When he moved to the short and punchy in The River, he actually seemed to be following Costello's lead, as did Neil Young in Rust Never Sleeps.

Meanwhile, even Costello's B-sides were staggering. I wouldn't have traded "Big Tears" or "Tiny Steps" for all of Darkness at the Edge of Town or Street Legal or Death of a Ladies' Man. Still wouldn't. I saw him in Chicago with the Attractions on that Armed Forces tour, maybe a month or some weeks before that Holiday Inn incident, and it still stands among the greatest shows I have ever seen. They were incandescent, a rock and roll tiger burning bright in  the Aragon Ballroom.

Such is the context in which either Costello himself or his manager Jake Riviera (he doesn't remember which) says, "I think it's time for a motorcycle accident" (374). It's an apt allusion--at the apogee of the white-hot flight of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 RevisitedBlonde on Blonde, and the 1966 tour, having discernibly shifted the whole culture, Dylan had to either stop and reset or implode. That accident, which could have killed him, saved his life and meant he could and did go on to do a lot of amazing work. The god-like phase, though, was over.

So with Costello: "that Ohio evening may well have saved my sorry life," he declares, by derailing him from his "ferocious pursuit of oblivion."

So what if my career was rolled back off the launching pad? Life eventually became a lot more interesting due to this failure to get into some undeserved and potentially fatal orbit.

Fair enough--only I would say he was already in that orbit and fell out of it. Excellent as much of the later work is--I love The Juliet Letters, The Delivery Man, and Momofuku--I can't help feeling the first four albums are the heart of the legacy and that they will matter for as long as people care about the music produced in my lifetime.

Which is why I was a little stung by the remark about Almost Blue, the C&W covers album that told Costello's fans, "I'm not who you think I am." He writes: "I felt as if I'd slipped out of this tricky, bitter little songs that only appealed to a certain kind of creep" (431).

Ouch. Thanks, Declan. I hope I'm not the creep I was in 1979, but I'll always cherish This Year's Model.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Elvis Costello, _Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink_ (part one)

GIVEN HOW PROLIFIC a songwriter Elvis Costello is, I was not surprised that his memoir clocks in at 670 pages; given the astonishing verbal ingenuity of his lyrics, I was not surprised that he turns out to be an entertaining, resourceful writer. It did come as a surprise, though, that the memoir is as mild-mannered in tone as it is. Costello seems to be following the principle that if one has nothing nice to say about someone, one should say nothing at all. I began to wonder whether he says so little about Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas, short-lived fling Bebe Buell, and longtime partner Cait O'Riordan because a lot of what he felt like saying just wasn't that nice. And why is Greil Marcus simply "a professor" (338)?

The voice throughout is that of the genial host of Spectacle, the charming between-songs-storyteller of Costello's solo shows. Nothing wrong with that; it is just as well that Costello did not use his memoir, à la Keith  Richards, to pay off old scores. The affability feels ironic, though, given that if one is sufficiently interested in Costello to pick up his book, one probably connected with the Elvis Costello of 1977-80--the spiky, illusionless slayer of scared cows that claimed his songwriting was motivated by revenge and guilt, slagged off Linda Ronstadt's earnest covers of some of his songs, and  tongue-lashed Steve Stills and Bonnie Bramlett one boozy night in Ohio.

That's him on the cover of Unfaithful Music, in some hotel room scarcely big enough to hold the bed he sprawls, Jazzmaster guitar on his abdomen, swept-back hair, thick-rimmed glasses, and a stare that says, "go ahead, try to impress me."

Although he was not actually part of the punk scene--his music could be fast and hard, but had none of punk's primitive art brut quality--here in the USA we thought he was as punk as the Pistols or the Clash because he was as savage as they were about rock's dinosaurs, about the tawdry remnants of hippiedom, about the music business ("Radio Radio"), about fashionable bohemias ("I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea"), about looming dystopias ("Night Rally").

Or "Hand in Hand"--

No, don't ask me too apologize. 
I won't ask you to forgive me.
If I'm gonna go down,
You're gonna come with me.
Don't you know I'm an animal?
Don't you know I can't stand up steady?
You can't show me any kind of hell
That I don't know already.

If Brian Jones had been capable of writing songs as beautiful, cold, and lethal as the aura Brian Jones projected, they would have been like "Hand in Hand." It's like a three-minute précis of Roeg and Cammel's Performance.

So what happened to that guy? Speculations in part two.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Riad Sattouf, The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984_, vol. 1

THIS IS THE only work by Sattouf I have seen; his jacket bio notes that he was a contributor to Charlie Hebdo, and I have no idea whether his work there was of the unbridled sort that publication was famous for. His line in this graphic memoir is fluid, clean, rubbery, and looks like it would easily lend itself to the more exaggerated kinds of satire, but his tone here is hardly that--what comes across most clearly is love for his family, even though the family's circumstances look difficult.

Sattouf's father is Syrian, his mother French; they met in France as students, and Sattouf was born  there. His father, Abdel-Razak, with a Ph. D. in history, gets offered a position at Oxford, but the racism he encountered in France piques his Arab national feeling. Fascinated by Gaddafi, he brings his wife and toddler son to Libya--an experiment that does not pan out. They return to France, another child is born, then off to Syria.

The reunion in Syria with the father's family is bumpy. He has a running feud with his brother over how some property was managed in his absence, and the blonde Riad is called "Jew" by his cousins, who keep threatening him. Riad is afraid to go to school, expecting similar treatment from his schoolmates. Meanwhile, Abdel-Razak is getting a bit more nationalist and a bit more Muslim.

Volume 1 ends with a brief trip to France and an announcement that they are about to return to Syria.

Abdel-Razak dominates Volume 1. He's a complex character--affectionate, loyal, intelligent, passionate about what he believes in, not to mention a fun dad, but also emphatic about getting his own way, easily offended, blinkered in some ways. He's fascinating. Riad's mother--whose name I can't locate--is also intriguing. Also intelligent, but quiet, perhaps passive, apparently not putting up much resistance to Abdel-Razak's plans for the family, which sometimes seem misjudged.

The child's-eye view of Libyan and Syrian politics of the 1980s and of the differences between European and Arab societies is innocent in some ways, Riad tending to reflect his father's seemingly naïve enthusiasms, but at the same time Riad's sensitivity to the ominous is strong. "We...we're going back to Syria?" he asks in a tremulous speech balloon in the next-to-last panel; in the last, he trails his family, wide-eyed and anxiously sweating, as they board a jet.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Mark Lilla, _The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics_

THIS IS THE book-length-essay version of the NYT op-ed Lilla published about a week after Trump was elected, which got a lot of reaction at the time, both favorable and un-. The key point: the Democrats will never be first past the finish line as long as their main appeal is "identity politics," i.e.,        issues of moment to women, ethnic minorities, and the LGBTQ community.

Lilla sees identity politics as a legacy of the 1960s New Left, which moved on to academia and left electoral politics behind as too prone to compromise, too grubby, with little of the nobility of movement politics. So the left got any number of English and Sociology departments, and the right got the halls of power.

He has a point, I'd say; identity politics do not lend themselves to coalition building or broad appeals. Thomas Frank made some similar arguments in Listen, Liberal!. Frank concedes, though, that while the Democrats cannot win on identity politics alone, they cannot win without identity politics, either. They matter a lot to lots of people, for excellent reasons. But some partnering has to happen.

That's why Lilla's subtitle seems wrong-headed in its echo of the many calls for the left to get "past" identity politics or "beyond" identity politics. I too find it a little surprising that my students feel passionately about bathrooms but are scarcely interested in raising the minimum wage, or protecting the right to organize a union, or workplace safety. But Lilla's scolding tone--"you kids get off my lawn and go vote for a Democrat!"--would not sway them.

Identity politics will be around for quite a while, I suspect. Where are the candidates who get that, but who also know how to talk about income inequality, affordable higher ed, health care--the Sanders stuff? They have to be out there--I just hope they emerge soon.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Daniel Defoe, _A Journal of the Plague Year_

ANOTHER OF THIS semester's texts in "Topics in World Literature: Health and Illness," along with Camille--and, for the record, Death in Venice, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, On Immunity, The Empathy Exams, Angels in America, Divine Honors, and Love in the Time of Cholera.

Our class did not engage this particular question, but I sometimes wonder whether the the tradition of the English realist novel, insofar as it is founded by Defoe, is founded on hoaxes. Like Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, A Journal of the Plague Year presents itself as a document: a true account by a London saddler of what he saw and heard during the last major outbreak in London of bubonic plague in 1665. It inaugurates a long tradition of fictions that adopt non-fictional forms--not just the many that present themselves as autobiographies (e.g, David Copperfield and Jane Eyre) or memoirs (Doctor Faustus, Edwin Mullhouse), but as commentaries on poems (Pale Fire) or histories (La Gloire de l'Empire) or literary anthologies (Shining at the Bottom of the Sea) or encyclopedias (See Under: Love).

The difference is that Nabokov's name, not Kinbote's, in on the title page of Pale Fire, while nothing about the early editions of A Journal of the Plague Year (or Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders) indicates that it was written by Daniel Defoe, not one H.F., London tradesman. There may be a ready practical explanation for this--Defoe hoping to give his creditors the runaround--but is it possible that he was just trying to pass the books off as something they were not? That he figured more people would buy a (supposedly) actual account of being shipwrecked on a desert island than would buy an avowedly invented tale of same? Did the readers of Journal of the Plague Year assume it was what it seemed to be? If and when they found out otherwise, did they feel cheated?  Is Defoe the literary ancestor not only of Vladimir Nabokov, but of James Frey?

The book certainly avoids seeming like a fiction, in ways that much irritated my students--haphazard organization, repetitions, no plot, no developed characters--ways that also, of course, make it seem all the more like a genuine account by an eyewitness--an artful artlessness. But whose art, that of the novelist or that of the counterfeiter? But maybe they are one and the same and always have been. "If I triumph I must make men mad," wrote Yeats of being poet; for the novelist to triumph, does he or she have to fool us?