Monday, October 27, 2014

More Mailer Stuff

Continuing a Mailer theme from the previous post, here are a couple of Norman Mailer-related YouTube items that might be of interest. First, his 1970 film Maidstone, a mostly failed experiment in improvisational filmmaking that is memorable only for the late scene in which a young and stoner-eyed Rip Torn physically attacks Mailer while the camera rolls. Neither of these gentlemen is exactly a brawler. To say that they fight like little girls would be an insult to little girls. The whole movie is worth watching once, though, the way a time capsule is worth opening--but only once. (The fight begins at about 1:34:00.)

Second, and considerably more entertaining, is this mid-1980s clip from The Tonight Show in which the late Joan Rivers attempts to interview Mailer (who's plugging Tough Guys Don't Dance) while Shelley Winters interrupts with a fantastic (in all senses) 'memory' of Mailer meeting Marilyn Monroe at a Henry Wallace rally in 1948. Mailer's response is pretty good, but Rivers is, of course, funnier.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Harold Bloom on Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings

I just discovered that Harold Bloom's highly enjoyable and erudite 1983 review of Norman Mailer's endless Egyptian novel, Ancient Evenings, is available in its entirety on the New York Review of Books website. Click here to read it. I remember devouring Ancient Evenings like Zero Mostel at an all-you-can-eat buffet when it was paperbacked in '84 (I was fifteen and already a literary hipster; big books aren't a problem when you're young enough to think you're immortal), and Bloom's old review encourages me to give Norman's Big Book of Bumbuggery another look.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Belated Bloomsday 2014: They Do Joyce in Differant Voyces

The commodious vicus of time's recirculation sped me past this year's Bloomsday without a blogpost, so here's this year's delateful Joycean ejaculation, exactly four months late.

This year I'm thinking about the vast diffusion of Joyce's influence over the literature of the last hundred years. Let's take our cue from T. S. Eliot's early title for The Waste Land and imagine a survey of the past century's literature under the title "They Do Joyce in Different Voices." Consider the Joycean debts owed by these landmarks of the modern literary mind:

The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot. The most influential English-language poem of the first half the 20th century was decisively influenced by Joyce's deployment of mythology in Ulysses, which Eliot read chapter-by-chapter in little magazines before its 1922 book publication. Of course, if we wish to take the ironic, deflationary deployment of myth and history as the defining rhetoric of Modernism, we should gaze back behind Joyce and seek Modernism's genesis in two paintings by Edouard Manet, Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia. In the spring of 1863, Manet was painting the latter in his studio while hordes of philistines were savaging the former at the Salon. Accordingly, I arbitrarily cite May 1863 in Paris as the time and place of Modernism's birth.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Virginia Woolf leveled a few unimpressive and snobbish criticisms at Ulysses, but that didn't stop her from ripping off Joyce's central idea (a day in the inner lives of urban characters) when she wrote Dalloway. Woolf's novel, read from our present distance in time, seems as much a complement/compliment to Joyce's novel as an implicit (if rather obvious) critique.

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. By the time she wrote this later work, Woolf had internalized Joyce's techniques, combined them with Proust's, and made them her own.

The Dalkey Archive by Flann O'Brien. In this monument to one Irish writer's monumental anxiety of influence, O'Brien imagines a Joyce who survived the war and lived on to absurdly disavow his literary achievements.

At Swim Two Birds by Flann O'Brien. Joyce liked and praised this proto-postmodern work that rises directly from the soil of the 'Cyclops' and 'Circe' episodes in Ulysses.

Murphy by Samuel Beckett. Joyce reportedly memorized the closing lines of this, Beckett's first and most clearly Joycean novel. Beckett once said that in fiction Joyce tended toward omniscience and he, Beckett, tended toward ignorance. The impressive range of reference in Beckett's early prose suggests he was still decisively under the Joycean influence when he wrote Murphy. It is arguable that he never really fought free of the influence, that he spent his entire career dialectically propelled by Joyce, like a moth repeatedly approaching then fleeing from a dazzling flame.

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. Miller was merely the most audacious of the American expatriates who learned from Joyce's work. The urban stream-of-consciousness style of Miller's horny-man-on-the-street rhapsodies descends directly from the early chapters of Ulysses.

Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe. It's probably not too much of a stretch to call this an American answer to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. Faulkner's representation of Benjy's fragmented consciousness would have been impossible without Joyce's experiments in the first half and last chapter of Ulysses.

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. The darkest of the Dubliners stories lie somewhere behind much of Hemingway's best work. To take just one example, read "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" in the light of Joyce's "Counterparts."

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes. The best parts of Barnes' experimental novel (which seems stranger to me with every re-reading; it's that rare book that becomes more difficult the better you know it) are the chapters dominated by Dr. Matthew O'Connor, an Irish-American monologuist who sounds like Joyce's Buck Mulligan on a roll.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. No writer more clearly desired to be dubbed the 'son of Joyce,' and this is perhaps the only novel in English that has succeeded in doing something both original and interesting with the linguistic techniques pioneered in Finnegans Wake.

Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Joyce's reduction of narrative point-of-view to the thoughts in a single mind, his consequent expansion of the representation of individual consciousness, his epiphanic elevation of the mundane to the level of the symbolic--all of these characteristic Joycean strategies fed into the radical reductions of the French nouveau roman.

Night by Edna O'Brien. Directly influenced by Molly Bloom's monologue, this is the next generation's and the other gender's reply to Ulysses. Every Irish writer must wrestle with James Joyce (if only, like Roddy Doyle, to petulantly dismiss him), and O'Brien did so at length in her very good, concise book on Joyce for the Penguin Lives series.

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. In his most formally original work, that noted Humbutterfly Hunter Professor V. Nabokov (AKA several sirenical pseudonyms), who taught Ulysses to undergraduates at Cornell, twisted Joycean formal experimentation to his own comically obsessive ends.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. The definitive Californian queering of Ulysses. Isherwood takes the original idea for Ulysses--the thoughts of a single man on a single day--and creates a pioneering masterpiece of what I suppose we must still call 'gay fiction.' I'd prefer to call A Single Man 'great fiction.'

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. In his greatest and most difficult book, Pynchon rewrites Ulysses for the age of aerial bombardment and nuclear warfare. Tyrone Slothrop is what happens to Stephen Dedalus after the Bomb.

Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996 by Seamus Heaney. Joyce is a spectre haunting Irish poetry. Heaney evokes him beautifully in the last section of "Station Island."

Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges. Joyce's influence on Borges might almost be called 'spiritual.' Joyce showed Borges that the transcendent might reside at 7 Eccles Street in Dublin and suggested to him that an Aleph might exist on an ordinary basement stair, that infinity might be found among the dusty volumes of a library, that a book might be the most dangerous labyrinth of all.

Couples by John Updike. As soon as the novel's first couple sexlessly hits the sack, Updike shifts into a few pages of Joycean pastiche. Joyce's influence on Updike was huge, and he may not have successfully assimilated it until Rabbit got rich.

The Tunnel by William H. Gass. Gass's prose owes much to the musical stylings of James the Joyous, and Gass's formal experiments and titanic streams of consciousness clearly descend from the Joycean precedent. It would be a mistake, though, to call The Tunnel a 'stream' of consciousness novel; this is no sibilant stream, no burbling brook; it's a Mississippi River of consciousness roaring toward its oceanic mouth. Don't drown in it.

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. Sal the Man takes Joycean linguistic exuberance back to Bombay. It's a homecoming of sorts, since Joyce's languages derive ultimately from Indo-European.

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin. Doblin's best-known work is the Berliner Ulysses. It exercised a decisive influence upon Gunter Grass, among many other writers.

The Western Canon by Harold Bloom. Bloom uses the Viconian structural paradigm of Finnegans Wake to organize this collection of insightful, idiosyncratic essays on Western literature.

Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth. The freedom claimed by Joyce and enlarged by Henry Miller and Jean Genet bears strange, darkly comic fruit in Roth's greatest (and probably funniest) novel, a book that explicitly references Ulysses.

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. After 40 years, it's time for this book to start receiving the respect it deserves. Forget anything you might have heard about it and read it. It's a major, serious and seriously funny work of literary fiction in the long comic tradition that begins at Aristophanes and reaches one of its peaks on Mount Joyce.

Saturday by Ian McEwan. This post-9/11 'one day in a Londoner's life' novel contains multiple Joycean allusions that are much more subtle than the book's obvious structural debt.

Oblivion by David Foster Wallace. Even James Wood is sometimes capable of astute criticism. When he remarked that Wallace deliberately threw open his prose instrument to the degraded languages of the American present, he identified the deepest debt Wallace owed to Ulysses (especially the strategies of the 'Eumaeus' episode and the first half of 'Nausicaa'). The bandannaed one seems to have gotten his Joyce at secondhand, via the American academic postmodernists (Barthelme, Barth, Coover) who hoed their various rows in the satirical-pastichey ground broken by Auld Blind Jim.

The House of Ulysses and Larva by Julian Rios. If Joyce had not existed, would Julian Rios have a career? Would he be known, even ever so slightly, outside a tiny Spanish-reading coterie?

The Surrealists. Joyce's relation to Surrealist literature closely parallels Picasso's relation to Surrealist visual arts: he was an older, already accomplished master who both influenced and was influenced by the artists of the Surrealist group.

Ulysses Gramophone: Two Words for Joyce by Jacques Derrida. And just for the hell of it, let's throw the Old Derridadaist into the mix. (For anyone interested in the critical connections, all of Derrida's writings on Joyce have been collected in English in the book Derrida and Joyce, edited by Andrew J. Mitchell and Sam Slote.) It seems to me that one of Derrida's unacknowledged projects was the introduction of Joycean linguistic play into philosophico-critical discourse. Regardless, Joyce remains the more entertaining philosopher--by far. (Readers of Derrida will understand why the penultimate word in this post's title is not misspelled.)

Slacker and the Before films, directed by Richard Linklater. And just for the unholy Joycean hell of it, let's end this post at the movies. Richard Linklater's deeply Bunuelian film Slacker signals its Joycean influence with a reading from Ulysses, but the Ulyssean influence is more subterranean (and thus more effective) in the wonderful series of Before movies starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight). Joyce and Eric Rohmer seem to stand side by side somewhere behind all three of these conversation-driven, single-day tales.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Additional Adversaria from the Summertime Notebook

In a novel, originality of form and language are fine and necessary, but in the absence of an interesting story they are frosting without a cake.

In the words of biologist J. B. S. Haldane, "The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose." I would say the same of Henry James.

Having just re-read J. G. Ballard's "The Garden of Time" and "The Drowned Giant," I find myself agreeing with Anthony Burgess that these two stories should surely be considered canonical. They exist on a level with the best of Kafka, Borges and Calvino. (Any writer who convinces me to compare him with Kafka is a master worthy of the highest respect.) Ballard is one of the very few 20th-century writers whose work can be as good and strange and cutting as Kafka's without also being derivatively 'Kafkaesque.'

Certainty is a vice of fanatics and fools.

Neal Stephenson's late (1992) cyberpunk novel Snow Crash begins promisingly, oozing supercool attitude and Tom Robbins-y metaphors. But the novel founders about 100 pages in, when Stephenson loses his cool, dials down the hyper-troping, and falls into a narrative rhythm of clumsy, repetitive exposition interrupted by increasingly ridiculous action scenes. Snow Crash may not have been intended as a parody of cyberpunk, but that's how most of the novel reads.

In the reverently silent cathedral of the tragic I give myself cramps trying to stifle a fart.

Picasso's relation to Surrealism, like Joyce's, follows the paradigm of Manet's relationship to Impressionism. He is the 'outside member,' part of the group yet apart from it, influencing it yet also influenced by it.

It is a fact of American life, exemplified again and again, that high school geeks become cool adults and high school coolios become mindless conformists and assholes.

This morning I gave myself an object lesson in the decline of American literary prose. I read the first page of Mary Gaitskill's Veronica (2005) and then the opening half-page of Stanley Elkin's The Franchiser (1976). One might expect at least a faint family resemblance between two works of literary fiction by two well-reviewed American writers, but these books differ in ways more fundamental than can be satisfactorily explained by the 30-year age difference. They spring from different aesthetic worlds. Gaitskill's prose is tediously typical of contemporary litfic: that lame, tepid, unadorned, faux-naïve bullshit that MFA students, editors, agents, etc. have all been brainwashed into thinking excellent. It is a prose that excels in nothing, except perhaps slavish conventionality (and this from a writer with a reputation for 'transgression'!) What a contrast flashes from Elkin's first page: he's manic, word-drunk, smart, witty, perceptive, a little loopy; he's fun and generous, and his prose sets off strings of linguistic firecrackers like New Year's in Chinatown. You can almost nose the hazy gunpowder. Elkin's prose makes me want to leap up like a pentecostalist at a revival meeting and holler, "Yea-yess! I can feel the spirit!" Next to Elkin's energy, Gaitskill seems constricted, her prose constipated, a slow, painful extrusion of strings of similar syllables. (Get her some stool softener, please!) She's shooting for insinuation instead of exaltation, but that's a conventional, academically-approved (and, today, positively old-fashioned) gambit. We need novels that grab the reader at sentence one and don't let go. We need to put some life back into our language--and from that living language build a literature that lives and laughs, loves and lusts, and leaves us wanting more.

No one will ever admire your fasting. Get busy.

Disease is the body's way of telling the mind, "Check it out, motherfucker, I'm in charge here." The body is very Al Haig.

In my most pessimistic moods I think of the human race not as nature's botched science experiment--that's too kind--but as a sixth-grade science fair project that got way out of hand. We're a baking soda volcano that won't stop erupting.

A negative reaction to a given book may signify nothing more than an inopportune reading moment. Encountered at a more appropriate time (for the book and the reader), the same book might blow us away. To be impressed by a book, we must read it at the right time. This is the unspoken element of contingency in all criticism. The positive or negative valence of a critic's first reaction to a book--the 'gut reaction' that his review will attempt, unconsciously, to rationalize--arises from a vast number of factors mostly unrelated to the text in question.

Art is life punching back at death.

"Every writer creates himself as best he can, all by himself, following no one's advice. And that's excruciating, but there's no other way." -- Pedro Juan Gutierrez, Dirty Havana Trilogy

Jonathan Franzen writes the kinds of books Anne Tyler might have written had she been an English department grad student during the 1980s. Franzen is Tyler plus postmodernism.

The reason almost all pornography is both grimmer and less awkward than actual sex is that pornography is fundamentally an elaboration of pre-sexual fantasy, the sexual fantasies of 13- and 14-year old boys.

The greatest American literature is a controlled madness. It's a thing of great formal beauty built out of bad craziness and apocalyptic visions. The greatest American literature has always 'worked the dark side' of our national consciousness, the side that D. H. Lawrence saw and imagined so well one hundred years ago in his little book on American lit. The great American artists burrow into those lightless caverns cut by genocide and slavery, by capitalism gone insane and madness in the name of gods. From Captain Ahab to Judge Holden is but a step, and those two points sufficiently define the main line of our literature. It is a line carefully sidestepped, avoided like a third rail, by the tepid suburban social realists continuously churned out by the MFA machine. Poor writers will always be with us, but good writers need not notice them. They should ponder instead the darkness that is their inheritance as Americans, the darkness without and the darkness within. (Written immediately after reading August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone.)

The novels of Russell Banks are the works of a literary Naturalist who thinks he's a Great American Symbolist. He may think he's writing in the tradition of Melville or Faulkner, but his imagination runs in a groove closer to Cather or Dreiser. In novels such as Affliction, his obvious Symbolist ambitions are constantly frustrated by an overly Naturalistic imagination.

The trouble with Nabokov as critic: He was a literary Mikey who hated everything.

"I am on the side of angels and dirt." -- Stanley Spencer.

In case the name doesn't ring Hector Salamanca's bell, the painter Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) was one of the great originals of 20th-century British art. His range encompasses Blakean visions, WWI military scenes, Lawrencian nudes, Riveraesque industrial murals, attractive landscapes, and the only truly impressive religious paintings of our time. (Check out his late Crucifixion (1958) or any of his bizarre and unheimlich Resurrection paintings.) The 2001 exhibition catalogue Stanley Spencer, edited by Timothy Hyman and Patrick Wright, is the best introduction to the full range of his work. Be warned, however, that too many of the illustrations are unfortunately printed across the gutter between pages, and parts are inevitably lost.

The art critic Leo Steinberg on Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, from his 1972 essay "The Philosophical Brothel": "The picture is a total wave of female aggression; one either experiences the Demoiselles as an onslaught, or shuts it off." Good luck shutting it off. I've spent a lot of time at MOMA being stared at by Pablo's women, and even when I turn my back on them and walk toward another gallery I can still feel their eyes drilling into me.

Critics allegorize; artists imagine.

Our culture of overspecialization has assigned Marxism to humanities professors so that two birds can be more economically murdered with a single stone.

The best songs by The Band, like many of Bob Dylan's best, seem to have been built out of baling wire and old tractor parts and held together with secret spells. They're as American as Grant Wood and as Gothic as Edgar Allan Poe.

"...dreaming is another kind of remembering..." -- Sigmund Freud, "Wolf Man" case history

In his American Masters documentary, Philip Roth speaks of Chekhov's idea of the duty of the writer: "the proper presentation of the problem." The problem, not the solution. Solutions are for fanatics and math teachers. Problems are more interesting.

Belief is much more dangerous than doubt.

I'm attracted to the idea that the fearsome void of nothingness can be understood dialectically as the origin point of authentic being. The void appears hellish only to those who see it through glasses ground by Paul, Augustine & Aquinas, lensmakers to the Lord. The fear of freedom is theirs; it need not be ours.

Alienation is out of style. If it weren't, it wouldn't be alienation.

In the end, as in the beginning, making art is about trusting yourself and following your vision, your imagination, your worldview. But the vision must be yours. Mine, perhaps the only thing besides my body that I can truly call mine, is my vision of reality as a place where maddening nothingness alternates unpredictably with intoxicating beauty; my idea that art and sex, aestheticism and eroticism, run off the same circuit of desire; my knowledge that corporate dominance, like religious and state hegemony in the past, is devaluing and degrading individual human life; my idea (stolen from science and Sartre but now mine by long possession) that all of life is meaningless, a product of pure chance, a lucky coup de des of astronomical and biological variables, but that individuals can produce meaning in their lives by acting in freedom. And the first act must always be the act of freeing oneself--first, last, and lifelong. Freeing oneself is a fight to the death.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Pulling a Le Clezio: The 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature

This morning the Swedish Academy 'pulled a Le Clezio' and awarded this year's literature Nobel to French writer Patrick Modiano, an author well-known in France and little-read outside it. Only a handful of his books are available in English translation, so this award might have the very positive effect of encouraging further translations and possibly even introducing English-language readers to an unknown masterpiece or two. I haven't read Modiano, but what I've read about him this morning is intriguing, and I am prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

Monday, October 6, 2014

MINDFUL PLEASURES Returns: Adversaria from the Summertime Notebook

As is obvious from the datestamp on the last post, I've been away from Mindful Pleasures for a while. The reasons for my absence range from inter-equinoctial indolence (as Nabokov might've phrased it) to Durer-esque melancholia to 'blog fatigue' to food poisoning (bad Chinese... really, really bad Chinese... like General Tso's chicken getting its head cut off by a band of Red Guards) to the worst cold virus I have ever experienced (I want my pseudoephedrine back!) to the desire to waste less time online (and waste more of it in the real world) to the comically catastrophic Forsteresque collapse of one of my largest bookcases (call me Leonard Bast--on second thought, don't) to the fear that online writing was chomping away at time I should have devoted to 'real' (i.e., imaginative) writing to my usual psychological basket case mélange of self-destructive impulses and crippling insecurity and anxiety at everything to a temporary bitter resentment at 'writing for free' partly fueled by this hilariously outrageous YouTube rant by Harlan Ellison:

But anyway, I'm back now. As autumn arrives in western Ohio and the skies cloud to the color of television static (I think I just stole that comparison from a William Gibson SF novel I read 20 years ago), I'm foolishly ignoring Harlan's sage advice and writing for free again. (I've also been writing, like everyone else except Dr. Johnson's blockhead, for the marketplace. Those books will become available for purchase at Amazon as soon as they are finished to my satisfaction, and I'll be writing more about them in future posts. I've taken a profane oath [my left hand raised, my right on a copy of Dante] not to speak of anything I'm writing until it's published and available for purchase, so you'll just have to wait...)

A large backlog of reading notes, random thoughts, opinions, ideas, epigrams, quotes, etc. has built up in my notebook over these months of postlessness. Here's a hopefully interesting selection:

Adversaria, from the Latin adversaria scripta, "things written on the side," denotes, according to The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, "[m]iscellaneous collections of notes. The kind of things that most writers accumulate in a notebook, day book, journal or diary." These notes, then, are the adversaria of my blogless summer.

Imagine an SF space opera that takes seriously the all but insurmountable obstacle of space's vastness, the idea that practical interstellar travel would require voyages lasting centuries or millennia, that onboard civilizations would rise and fall during these voyages, that new cultures would evolve and struggle en route aboard vast space vehicles the size of Long Island, or even Australia. Has this novel already been written? Probably, but it never rose out of the genre bin far enough to flash a blip on the 'literary' reader's radar.

D. T. Max's biography of David Foster Wallace informs us that DFW told his writing classes that "a novelist had to know enough about a subject to fool the passenger next to him or her on an airplane." This is good advice. I've tried to fool passengers who've shared my armrest, and either it's harder than it sounds or I'm a poor liar. Probably both.

Stephen King is a good writer when he takes the time to be. But when he dozes, the clichés multiply like maggots in a murder victim.

As a novelist, Updike is a benevolent creator-god who loves all his children equally and expects his readers to love them likewise. This high aesthetic stance, which I admire, may blind him to the actual repulsiveness of his characters. This is one of several priggish criticisms laid against the late John by Wallace, Franzen and other Oedipal sons. I tend to disagree. By contrast, I see Updike at his best as an American Balzac. Yes, Updike--not that twitty, white-suited, self-promoting, right-wing honky Tom Wolfe--is the closest thing to a Balzac that postwar America produced. Updike is the writer who, to some extent against his rhapsodic, celebratory inclinations, provided the most damning portraits of the American white middle class in the age of affluence. The complaint that Updike seemed not to appreciate the repulsiveness of his characters can be rephrased along these lines: Updike the rhapsodist seems unaware of Updike the social critic. But can this really be possible? Surely a litdude as savvy as Uncle John would've known exactly what he was doing. Many of his critics are attacking, unknowingly, not the author's moral repugnance, but his vision of theirs (and ours). Wallace's notorious review, for example, might profitably be read as an unconscious attack on the aspects of Wallace's own personality that were most like those of Updike's characters. Wallace isn't criticizing Updike; he's laying into the Updike in himself.

Jean Genet, too often and too quickly pigeonholed as a 'gay writer,' might be best understood as the most beautiful of all surrealist prose writers. Genet, not Cocteau, is surrealism's aesthete.

Whenever I wane nostalgic (better and smarter than waxing that way) for a time when titles by Updike, Mary McCarthy, Bellow, Philip Roth and Gore Vidal occupied the bestseller lists now permanently reserved for the latest products of James Patterson's potboiling pseudoliterary sweatshop, I should remind myself that neither The Group nor Herzog nor Couples nor Myra Breckenridge nor Portnoy's Complaint topped those lists on the strength of its prose artistry or structural originality or incisive analysis of the Great American Mess. No, those books sold (and sold well, and kept on selling, and still sell today) because they were (in the term of the groovy day) 'racy,' they were (as Dr. Joyce Brothers would've said on The Mike Douglas Show) 'sexually frank.' Each of those titles was a succes de scandale. Those books bestsold not for their prose but for their pussies and pricks. They were among the first books by major American literary writers to deal openly, maturely and non-euphemistically with sex and adultery, realities not invented by the Sixties (as some of our contemporary conservatives seem to believe) but first freely and explicitly and non-judgmentally entering American literature in that decade. These novels generated excitement because they participated in a sexual, rather than a literary, revolution. By the Seventies and Eighties, when sex scenes were obligatory and old hat, literary fiction went the way of serious 60s and 70s cinema: it all but disappeared from the bestseller lists, vanishing under waves of blockbusting 80s kitsch.

William Carlos Williams' Paterson doesn't entirely succeed, and that may be the least important thing about it. The first three books are very good, the latter two less so, but the climactic third book, that dark and fiery "beautiful thing," was strong enough to carry me through. Those first three books are an exhilarating experience, a priceless artifact of the Good America that exists in my head as a rebuke to the Bad America of the Bushes and Cheneys and Limbaughs. Paterson, at its best, IS the city on the page. It is an epitome of American pluralism, a multivocal collage of the voices in America's head.

I increasingly distrust interpretation. Too often (or always?) interpretation interposes an abstracted representation of an artwork between the work and the audience. All interpretations are selective abstractions, and one of the pleasures of reading a widely interpreted book (Hamlet, Ulysses, Gatsby) is watching the text devour its interpretations--or better, drown them in the concrete overshoes of the text's superabundant materiality. The pleasure of a book or a painting lies not in the temporary illusion of mastery that interpretation provides. It resides, rather, in the moment by moment, sentence by sentence, passage by passage, page by page experience of the work. Criticism, while always parasitic, can be true to the work and nonreductive to the extent that it records these experiences, thinks about them, argues from them.

Beauty, like death, charges our lesser existence with meaninglessness. But unlike death, beauty does this in the name of life.

Whenever an artist lists rules for his art (e.g., Elmore Leonard's 'Rules for Writing'), we must understand these as descriptions of his own art rather than prescriptions for ours. Misguidedly 'following' such 'rules,' as too many novice writers do, is an easy and seductive way to relinquish your individuality and ensure that you'll never write anything worth reading, anything truly authentic. An artist must be egotistical enough to listen only to himself when he writes. My rule: trust your instincts and work from them; if you don't have any, don't write.

On May 19 of this year, I received an email from a fiction reviewer for the New Statesman (UK), informing me that in a new book by John Sutherland, ironically titled How To Be Well Read, a passage from my long-ago blog post on David Foster Wallace's Broom of the System is quoted at length but attributed to, of all people, Martin Amis. Some personages might be pissed off by mistakes like this and try to turn them into tempests-in-a-thimble, but my personage finds the whole thing rather amusing.

"The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power." -- Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark

Morrison's critical readings in Playing in the Dark are compelling, if occasionally overstated. The worst thing about the book, surprisingly, is its prose. Morrison seems to deliberately hobble her usually gorgeous prose to make it sound more typically academic, repeatedly using the ugly "X-ed and X-ing" rhetoric of critical theory. The result is exhausted and exhausting, irritated and irritating, etc-ed and etc-ing ad nauseam...

An American writer who does not attempt to imagine his way into the lives of traditionally 'othered' peoples (African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, lower-class whites, etc., etc.) is shirking his duty as an artist in a pluralistic society. That sentence seems so obvious to me that I hesitated even to type it. And yet it must not be obvious at all, for publishers' midlists and the NYT books pages overflow with novels restricted to the writer's ethnic group, class, or even life (the me-me-more-me syndrome). Writers need to think outside themselves, outside their families, outside their neighborhoods. Writers must gorge themselves until their imaginations grow as big as America, as big as life.

Late spring is my favorite time of year. The foliage tricks itself into tropical lushness before summer's droughty browning, and the land becomes a birdsong symphony in green.

Most people pass through life without the disturbance of a single original thought. A few others are socially crippled by their own authenticity. I find the latter more interesting, also more frightening. Updike's Rabbit books chart the trajectory of the first kind of life.

"The old, weird America," Greil Marcus's great phrase for the imaginative place that produced the Anthology of American Folk Music and Dylan's Basement Tapes, is a country I have accessed via Robert Altman's films, Sam Shepard's plays, the poetry of Whitman, Dickinson, Williams and Crane, Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe," Ellison's Invisible Man, Faulkner's novels, Moby Dick and Bartleby and Billy Budd and Benito... There are a thousand and eleven points of entry to the old, weird America, that sepia-toned, race-haunted place. It's like a black thunderhead bristling with lightning, every bolt a pathway to the interior. Grab hold of one and ride. Here's a flash of weird American lightning to get you started:

Ten Essential American Books, or The Real 'Common Core' (in chronological order):
  1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays
  2. Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Other Writings
  3. Herman Melville, Moby Dick
  4. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
  5. Emily Dickinson, Complete Poems
  6. Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson
  7. D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature
  8. William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
  9. James Baldwin, Collected Essays
  10. Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian