Friday, October 09, 2015

Stuff I tell my daughters, as they prepare to vote for the first time.

(Stuff I tell myself, really -- sheesh, but the cage in this zoo is gettin' high.)

You haven't fallen that far from the tree (yet -- I try not to take any commonality for granted). Everything the current PM does rankles you pretty deeply. I get that (boy do I ever). Worse, you're living in a riding that is an absolute lock for the Conservative Party. Your vote isn't going to change that -- not in the least.

On the one hand, this is great -- you can throw your vote behind the wildest kook off the left end of the political spectrum, and never be held to account for your support. On the other hand, this sucks. It feels like your vote doesn't matter. But get into the habit of participating, and don't ever let up. It can be crazy-making, but there are a couple of things I try to keep in mind, just keep my head a bit (especially at campaign time).

The first is that disappointment just goes with the territory. It has to. If it doesn't, then you've become a dangerous person

The second is that people like us generally don't do too badly under governments like this -- governments of any stripe, really. We're white. We're straight-down-the-middle. We're also in a sub-culture that looks after its own, because it can. Our vote and political participation, such as it is, is mostly an attempt to ameliorate our moral sensibilities on this basic existential fluke.

It feels like we can and should do more -- so do, starting with the immediate neighborhood. It doesn't matter where you live, things are freaky for someone. And people are trying to attend. Look for the attenders in your neighborhood, introduce yourselves and roll up your sleeves.

People are going to tell you that this (or some other) election is the most important one in your lifetime. It felt to me like the most important election of my life was '88, when Mulroney's "Conservative" Free-Trade-Agreement with the US stood in the balance. To my eyes the last 30 years have been nothing but chickens coming home to roost.

But here's a question -- who was elected Prime Minister 100 years ago? Robert Borden, that's who -- a Conservative who put the kybosh on Reciprocity, the attempted (Liberal-drafted) FTA of his day. One hundred years ago, if you were Conservative, you were pro-tariffs, and very much agin "free trade." Plus ca change, right?

So there you go. Don't get bent out of shape about it. Learn some breathing exercises, go for long walks, pray -- do whatever helps to keep your head from spinning off. Each day brings its own challenges. Lend help, and be gracious about accepting help, wherever possible.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Tree Of Smoke, Denis Johnson

Tree of SmokeTree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can't claim any profundity of insight into Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke. As I read it, the novel is a multifaceted portrait of the degree to which individuals require religious certitude in order to wage war, and the chronicling of how violence and compassion slowly disabuse some individuals of that certitude -- of, indeed, just about any certitude at all.

Johnson's book is deeply humane, in other words -- recommendation enough to take and read. But in my particular case I fell head-over-heels in love with the work as I read some 15 or so pages aloud, to my family, on summer vacation, while one of my kids sketched portraits of me into her notebook.

And though no-one in the room asked me to read the rest of the book to them (my wife would be game, given a long enough road trip), when I was finished with this particular passage all claimed to have enjoyed it. The voices were unique, easily identifiable as such, and utterly engaging as personalities with longings particular to themselves and in a life-and-death competition with the cosmos.

At my stage in life any author who takes more than 350 pages to make their point is tempting immediate rejection. But by the end of Tree of Smoke I found myself possessed by that increasingly rare frame of longing, wishing the experience hadn't ended so abruptly -- at 600-plus pages.

View all my reviews

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Thoughts On My First "30"

The so-called "nightcap." When did this occasional indulgence become a nightly necessity? Nor was it, any longer, a Teutonic single glass accompanying a light supper. I was enjoying too much, too often. When the contemplation of thirty days without seemed too much to bear, it was clearly time to stop mulling it over and just do it.

"If you don't moderate you have to quit, and that's the sad story" - Jim Harrison

Some observations at the end of my sojourn:

Energy levels -- whipsawed crazily for the first week-and-a-bit, before levelling out to something more robust than what I'd experienced in quite a while (late 30s, early 40s, I'd say). My workout routine gradually surged back to what I was doing nine years ago.

Sleep -- the quality of it definitely improved -- when I was, in fact, sleeping. My insomniac tendencies, however, did not change in the slightest, except that now when I lay awake I was no longer beating myself up for having imbibed.

Weight -- something else that didn't change in the slightest. This was a surprise and a disappointment. Leading up to the 30 I would have, without hesitation, identified the bulk of my "empty calories" as alcohol. And, of course, alcohol also messes with the body's metabolism. During the 30, my eating habits were what they'd always been. What with my workout surge, you could argue that I've probably regained some muscle, which weighs more than fat. And sure, the shirts have indeed become a little tighter in the shoulders -- but alas, the pants are no looser.

My face looks a little leaner, though -- the encroaching jowls retreated somewhat.

Productivity levels -- shot up, almost immediately, especially in writing. This was the most pleasant surprise.

The "Witching Hour" -- will always be the Witching Hour, usually from 4:30 to 6:30 ("Cinq à Sept" the French call it). As you get closer to the Witching Hour's conclusion the fraught and freighted early minutes of its onset look increasingly absurd. But you will feel it all over again, just as acutely, next week Friday at the exact same time.

Related: social dos. The early moments of a nephew's wedding celebration were a little touch-and-go. But again, the absurdity of the anxiety did eventually sink in.

Final thoughts: I will certainly do this again. In fact, I can even envision a six-month break, something that would have seemed unimaginable two months ago. Mind you, I write this in the morning, and not at 5:30 on a Friday evening.

Regardless, I intend to do this again in March, 2016. Screw "Dryuary" -- I'm talkin' "Parch"!

Friday, September 18, 2015

While We're Young, Part 2 -- The Hangover

I now regret making this a two-parter -- it's all too slight to really engage in. But a promise is a promise, so here I go. With a little luck we can all leave this post with at least a smidgen of our dignity intact.

After Friday's viewing, I descended into slow roiling fit of crabbiness. When Saturday's paper arrived I pored through it, saving the Arts & Culture section for last because that's where I usually have the most fun. Not this time, however. The pages were devoted to Toronto's International Film Festival, and despite the various reporters' and essayists' best attempts, I just wasn't feeling the love. When I finally frog-marched the entire mess of newsprint over to the blue box, I thought, Honestly, who gives a $#@% about this -- any of it?

I didn't (obviously). Kids these days? Doubtful. They've got their own scene, and even the selfie-with-celebrity aspect of it tends to bypass Hollywood types on the red carpet in favour of YouTube stars occupying this side of the velvet rope.

No, I thought. Probably the only ones who care are the writers sent there by desperate newspaper conglomerates. "Theory Types," in their 30s and early 40s. A super small audience, to be sure.

So, yeah: Baumbach's flick definitely hit the sweet- (or sore-) spot for Yours Truly.

I used to care about film festivals. I can recall when Pulp Fiction won the Palm D'Or at Cannes in 1994. Quentin Tarantino was the subject of a long night's excited discussion over pints at the pub. We had Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, Natural Born Killers and now Pulp Fiction to consider -- what was this cat on about? Because he was clearly on about something.

I'm still friends with everyone at that table, and today I can't imagine discussing Tarantino for any longer than a few minutes -- one hour, tops. And I've got to the point where I'd prefer hearing Tarantino talk about movies to watching another one of his.

Has the scene changed, or have I? I expect the scene has -- I just can't be bothered to track where or how. And I've certainly changed, I know that. Most of my friends have, also.

Our conversation these days is devoted primarily to the concerns and well-being of children and surviving parents, then each other. After that we might talk film, and if Tarantino is the subject, the opening question would probably be, "Have you seen ___?" And if not, "So what's the last Tarantino flick you saw?"

That'd get discussion rolling, possibly even for a full hour. But it's hardly the purview of deeply invested aesthetes.

Anyway. No grand conclusion. Just me, getting older. Hoping you'll join me.

That is all.
"You in the right theatre, son?"

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

While We're Young, Part 1

With yet another Friday night to ourselves, my wife and I queued up While We're Young, Noah Baumbach's fairly recent entry to the "Comedy of Discomfiture" genre.

Watts & Stiller, comically discomfitted.
Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play a New York couple in their early-40s -- artsy-fartsy types of more than modest means, if their flat and wine selection are any indication. While their peers slip into the befuddling aesthetic morass of early parenthood, they find themselves childless (by biology, not choice) and socially adrift, not least from each other.

A younger, prettier artsy-fartsy couple, played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried, drift into their orbit. Among other endearing characteristics, the youngsters make a reverent fetish of technology the older couple left behind without a second glance -- vinyl LPs, typewriters, board games, even movies on VHS cassette. Exposure to all this youthful enthusiasm for the arcane and the immediate is so appealing, so engaging, so reinvigorating it feels like a gift from the gods -- what could possibly go wrong?

Everything one expects, of course, plus a few surprises.

This is the sort of role Stiller seems to have been genetically bred and socially engineered for. Critics galore comment on the aura of anxiety, shame and childlike neediness that seems to emanate from the man's every pore, which he turns on to great effect in this flick. As for Watts, it's a temptation for Hollywood women and their directors to embrace the relatively more dignified "straight-man" role in comedy. Watts' performance is the antithesis of this trend -- she embraces and embodies the insecurities and desires of her character so fearlessly, the result is both hilariously comic and just this side of heartbreaking.

Critics reach for Woody Allen when talking about Baumbach, and I kinda get it, but I also don't. It's New York, the characters occupy the lower-upper-class and fixate on the ennui of it all. And maybe it's a side effect of the growing distaste that we, the hoi polloi, have for the capers indulged by Allen and his social circle, but I have difficulty recalling the last time I laughed out loud during an Allen movie (the exchange of glances at the opera in Love And Death, maybe, or reaching for Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall (mm . . . maybe not the latter -- self-conscious laughter shouldn't count)).

Anyway, suffice it to say my wife and I were engaged -- in fact, I was more deeply engaged than I originally suspected at the time of viewing.

More to follow.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The genetics of an unwelcoming mien.

My wife and I were tagged to greet at church yesterday. The usual drill -- stand by the entrance, smile, shake hands, pass out bulletins.

Old-timers usually hang out with me and chew the fat a bit. The youngsters ... not so much.

One young mother came through the door with her three daughters, ages six and younger. The girls took one look at me and immediately hid behind her skirts. "Ah, yes," said the mother, "the 'scary man.'"

Sigh. Angry eyebrows and a stentorian baritone voice. I am the Lloyd Bochner of church greeters.

"Girls. Welcome."

Thursday, September 10, 2015

What are we going to do about iTunes?

Seriously -- iTunes has become a problem. And it's only getting worse -- and I'm thinking Blackberry worse.

"I hate iTunes," writes John Patrick Pullen, "and I think Apple does, too ...Once the ultimate in music file management and the centerpiece to Apple's financial turnaround, this program has evolved from a simple, dependable music player into the biggest example of bloatware in computers today." Over at The Atlantic Robinson Mayer pretty much agrees.

Meanwhile all this fulminating puts Dave Sims in a nostalgic mood. He pines for that long-ago day when the iPod and iTunes actually solved a problem, with what now seems a seductive elegance.

Man, do I relate. I have an iPod Classic -- 120 GB, just about at capacity. It's all music and podcasts. I plug it into the home stereo and run one of my massive playlists as the day-long soundtrack to household contentment. Or I'll take it with me on car excursions. The newer vehicle allows it to plug right into the console, but I've worked things out just fine for the older one as well -- you don't need hi-fidelity to get the proper gist of most podcasts, so I just plug in one of those collapsible little boomer-speakers and hit play.

When my beloved Infernal Device finally wheezes its last, I'll shut off iTunes and resort to ... something else. But what? Streaming is all the rage, down in the US of A -- indeed, it's catching on north of 49 as well, albeit very slowly. Content availability, originally a sticking point, is improving but still noticeably short of what our southern neighbours enjoy. And Jazz and Classical, the two genres I do the most surfing for, are nearly non-existent in most streaming catalogues.

Also, streaming sound quality may be better than radio, but only just. More to the point, I've got plenty of fat sound files parked in two hard-drives as well as in my little corner of Google Play. I'd prefer those juicy files get to my (now vintage) speakers via as short a route as possible. Again, the iPod (with playlists!) was a nearly ideal unit. Mebbe I'll resort to plugging one of my hard-drives into my PlayStation, as is the wont of others who've made that box the centerpiece of their home entertainment unit.

So, yes, there are solutions to this problem. But they all seem somewhat improvisational and a little rough around the edges, in contrast to what Apple once offered not-so-long-ago -- alack, alas.

If you have any suggestions, I'm all ears.

Friday, September 04, 2015

"Hey Uncle Stevie, the forest called; they're running out of trees."

Know your meme.

Not our house -- yet.
Another tempest of letters and opining within the bookish teapot: Stephen King reacts to an "unspoken postulate" within literary criticism that "the more one writes, the less remarkable one's work is apt to be." Drew Nellins Smith retorts, with That's Too Much: The Problem With Prolific Writers.

I'm more sympathetic to Smith's argument -- except when I'm not. Jonathan Franzen, whose work I've occasionally enjoyed, is producing at an acceptable rate so far as I'm concerned. Charles Stross is more voluble, and I'd never dream of telling him to slow down.

Write as fast as you can, or care to. But if you're prolific, it's probably best you not expect to be deeply read.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Whither The Morally Serious Potboiler?

The Guardian has concocted some perfectly geeky click-bait. Jonathan Jones says life is too short to waste on ordinary potboilers, and throws Terry Pratchett into said pot. On behalf of outraged Pratchett fans the world over, Sam Jordison retorts.

"Don't I look morally serious?"

I read some Pratchett in my 20s. I enjoyed it well enough -- a shade more than I did Douglas Adams, actually. Both traded in absurdities, but where Adams flew around like a perpetually deflating balloon, Pratchett's tack was to treat absurdities with the greatest intellectual seriousness. If a world is flat, and the universe governed by sprites, etc., this is how the physics of it has to work. Add human foibles, and comic shenanigans ensue.

I might pick up another Pratchett book, before I finally join him as daisy fertilizer. Hard to say, really. Right now when I'm in the mood for the sort of thing Pratchett did well, I'm more inclined to pick up something by Charlie Stross.

He's younger, for one thing -- at this point youthful (and I'm speaking relatively, understand) writers serve the dual purpose of keeping me at least superficially informed of the contempo state-of-being, while assuring me I still retain some connection to the passions that drove me in my youth toward the person I am today. Plus, Stross is hip to the whole Cthulhu scene.

What I'm not going to do is make a case that both these guys should be avoided in favour of work less potboilery. Life is short, dammit. Read what excites you -- and let the rest of us know about it!

Charles Stross' site is here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Highly Recommended: LARB Long-Reads

Summer seems to bring out the best in the Los Angeles Review of Books. They've put out a bunch of long-reads that are composting in my consciousness, on topics of lifelong appeal.

Neal Stephenson is someone I've read and ... kinda ... enjoyed. Although, to be honest, he's someone I've returned to again and again out of hopes he'd grab me and scramble my view of things the way he did so thoroughly when I read Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, back in the day. Cryptonomicon retained some of that power, but in the tomes that followed I resorted to a whole lot of speed-reading. He seems like a writer in pursuit of something, though what that something is, I couldn't say. I read, but I clearly do not attend.

Not exactly "Captain Obvious"

"We hear a lot about how big [Stephenson's] ideas are," says Peter Berard, "but get little substantive engagement with these ideas, especially outside of science fiction circles." Berard takes a significant step to address this deficit, in Neal Stephenson's Ideal Forms, over here. In the process, he uncovers some peculiarly Stephensonian tropes, including "The armed WASP."

Madeleine L'Engle, with grand-daughters.

"Madeleine L'Engle uses intergenerational encounters to complicate our sense of time," says Jonathan Alexander, who goes on to add,

"Recent work by queer theorists, such as Elizabeth Freeman and Jack Halberstam, traces how contemporary neoliberal understandings of time orient us toward productivity, watching the clock and our bodies (think biological clocks) to make the most of the time we have and contribute to the maintenance of society. L’Engle’s approach to time is not 'queer' in its questioning of normative orientations — after all, these are books concerned with the maturation of young people into pretty standard (and heterosexual) notions of functional adulthood. But time for L’Engle is queer in the sense that it hardly ever moves in a straight line in her novels. Everyone, no matter how old or seemingly 'mature,' is caught in time, dealing with the complexities of living and loving." 

Alexander's Late L'Engle: Wrinkles of Time, Redeemed is over here.

Grant Morrison's belief in magic is, I would say. a great deal less metaphorical than L'Engle's was. If you read his impassioned autobiography/history of comics, you'll see how it has prompted him to write some of the most remarkable and subversive comic book storylines of the past 30 years. The Multiversity, his latest for DC, has met with more than a few critical shrugs of dismissal -- e.g., Gregory L. Reece wishes he'd listened to the advert banner. William Bradley argues this is an egregious mis-read of what Morrison is up to, and hails The Multiversity as "the smartest book DC Comics has published in years" -- over here.

One of the tensions Bradley explores is whether a comic book can be both subversive, and a smashing commercial success. My inclination is to say, "Um, yeah," and move on. For some artists in the trenches, however, this is a soul-rending conundrum -- Bill Watterson, of Calvin & Hobbes fame, would be the poster-boy of this existential condition; Charles M. Schultz its antithesis. Not surprisingly, the two had a history of taking subtle digs at each other in interviews. Luke Epplin uncovers it all in a terrific piece, Selling Out The Newspaper Comic Strip, over here.

Enclosed: One (1) ACME Doof-Warrior Apparatus

And, finally, I am greatly chuffed to see Isabel Ortiz highlight the resemblance of Mad Max: Fury Road to Chuck Jones' Road Runner shorts, in her piece The Cartoon Bodies of "Mad Max: Fury Road" over here.

While composing this post I had to fight the urge to end every paragraph with, "Highly recommended." Yup -- they're all highly recommended. So put down that timeless classic you vowed to finish this summer, and read these timely distractions instead!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Unpacking U.N.C.L.E. — Phase Two

With incredibly cool guns -- and a young David McCallum!

Five years ago our family watched the entire TV series, and loved it (see Phase One, here and here). The trailers for Guy Ritchie's attempted movie reboot looked fairly promising, so it was a sure bet we'd make a family effort to see the flick on opening weekend.

And so last Saturday found the four of us parked before the silver screen, humming the Jerry Goldsmith theme song while we waited for the lights to dim and the movie to start ("waiting like a communicant," is how James Wolcott describes the mood).

Cue the first critical disappointment: no Jerry Goldsmith theme song.

Considering how the movie (and soundtrack) exults in so much lavish 60s pop ephemera that it risks comparison to Austin Powers, this absence is inexplicable and gets the movie off to a rocky start. Nevertheless, I was determined to give Ritchie and Co. every possible advantage, so I took a deep cleansing breath and settled in for the duration.

When Armie Hammer stomped in as a Terminator-style Ilya Kuryakin, I reminded myself that the Impossible Missions Force never used to solve their conundrums in a series of lengthy chases and fiery explosions -- something I mostly overlook whenever I sit down for a Mission: Impossible movie. Still, an Ilya prone to room-wrecking fits of rage took some getting used to.

Henry Cavil brings a wry detachment to Napoleon Solo that more-or-less works, though Robert Vaughn's sly and unshakeable sense of amusement at the endless absurdities was dearly missed, as was his boyish, "Give me a kiss, we might both like it," manner of seduction. And Hugh Grant's turn as Mr. Waverly raises everyone's game so appreciably, I wished he'd somehow been grafted into the earlier two-thirds of the movie.

The truth is I just wasn't feeling any of it -- until about the halfway mark, when a scene of such perfectly framed comic hijinx occurs, it highlights the potential that's been lying untapped beneath the film the entire time.

So Ritchie's movie gets a "meh" from me. My wife thought there were enough scenes like the one I alluded to to recommend the movie on the whole. My older daughter found it largely amusing, but was underwhelmed by Alicia Vikander, whose occasional attempts at a German accent would have benefited mightily from an afternoon of Hogan's Heroes.

The younger daughter loved it, however -- her first concern leaving the theatre was that Ritchie might blow the sequel as badly as Abrams did his second Star Trek. Given the box office results, she probably doesn't have any reason to worry.

"We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when..."

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Problem/Solution: Permanent Stickers On Book-Jackets

During a recent foray into the States, I spotted some remaindered books whose prices were, despite the eroded state of our Canuck-Bucks, too good to pass up.

So far so good. However, there seems to be something in the national character of the US that insists on labeling the dust-jackets of remainders with permanent stickers. I tried all the usual tricks of the trade, including applying lighter fluid to the glue. This used to be a sure-fire (giggle) last resort that always did the trick. Today's glue is sterner stuff, alas, and just smears out.

In the case of the E.L. Doctorow title, I had a difficult decision to make: keep the now-gummy dust-jacket, or discard it and read the naked hard-cover? I often opt for the latter, but this meant carrying around an overly-somber pitch-black book. Who wants to read that? On the other hand, who wants to read a gummy-covered book that picks up fingerprints, lint and cat hair?

As I pondered my options I recalled an older gentleman who used to audit several of my university philosophy courses. He fastidiously papered over every one of his textbooks, using butcher's paper -- even the Penguin paperbacks. Inspired, I now retrieved some paper grocery bags, a pair of scissors and a Sharpie and got to work.

Et viola! I now possess a book with a cover that entices (well ... it entices me, at least).

Most gratifying of all, I've replaced the pandemonious puffery of his peers with a little of my own. Everybody wins!

Friday, August 14, 2015

While My Guitar Not-So-Gently Weeps: Rocksmith 2014

I recently turned the corner on a half-century of years, and, under the urging of my younger brother, awarded myself an inexpensive aid through the inescapable mid-life crisis -- my very first electric guitar, and amp.

Commence humming "Also Sprach Zarathustra"!

I've been a campfire strummer and classical finger-picker of modest ability throughout my adult life. I took piano lessons for five or six years as a child, so I can read music. I've hopefully got another decade of reasonable finger dexterity ahead of me. How difficult could it be to expand my skills as a guitarist?

Well, it's not without its challenges. But in this era of digital innovation there are ingenious ways and means of breaking through them. I was particularly curious about a program called Rocksmith 2014, which bills itself as "The Fastest Way To Learn Guitar."

Not me -- in case you're wondering.

Some years earlier I'd played a bit of Guitar Hero with my godson (who absolutely demolished me), and wondered, "Why couldn't this be done with a real guitar?" Ubisoft obviously had the same thought, and programmed their game to play to spec.

It's an interesting experience. My first reaction was, until they come up with a Devin Townsend or Steven Wilson song package, the default song selection mostly rates a "meh." I am grateful for the inclusion of "The Spirit of Radio," of course, but whether the player does or doesn't like the songs hardly matters. None of them get played in a recognizable manner anyway, at least not until the player advances to that level -- which, in my case with "The Spirit of Radio," won't be for a very, very long time.

Wait, correction: my actual first reaction was, "Where's the literature?!" Rocksmith does not have a user's manual, which originally threw me into a panic. It's an inspired move, however -- kids want to get going right away, of course, and Ubisoft has designed their program with that in mind. And I have to say, the game navigation is impressively intuitive. You queue up the game, plug in your guitar -- and you're off to the races.

My third thought was, "This is the fastest way to learn guitar -- maybe." There are caveats. Rocksmith encourages players to register for their 60 Day Challenge, the basic idea being you commit to playing this game for an hour a day in an uninterrupted 60 day stretch. Of course, sixty hours devoted to guitar practice of any stripe should get you pretty nimble, no matter what the program.

The other caveat is the player will learn to read tabulature, not standard notation. Is that a big deal? Mm, probably not, but piano players will find the less elastic muscles in their brains getting an unexpected workout.

What impressed me most at first blush is Rocksmith's immediate insistence on playing past the fifth fret. For a campfire strummer, that's the equivalent of pulling off the water-wings and getting thrown into the deep end of the pool. And, as with the metaphor, the experience is both bracing and exhilarating. You've got to get comfortable with the entire length of the guitar neck -- no point in delaying that, so just do it. It is, or should be, easy-peasy technique, but the business of jumping from seventh to twelfth to fourteenth, then back down to seventh again is something that requires practice. And Rocksmith noobs will get plenty and plenty of practice (60 hours in two months, if they follow through).

But the final caveat is pretty much what I expected -- there are elements of play and learning that an actual flesh-and-blood teacher can address and impart with greater speed and efficiency. So, to that end, I have the number of a recommended instructor. I'll give him a call, and hopefully come September school will once again begin for yours truly.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Sex, With E.L. Doctorow

E.L. Doctorow died last week Tuesday, at the age of 84. I've scanned my library to see how many of his titles I have. Seven, it turns out -- and I've given away five others. I did another inventory of sorts, and concluded he is probably the most partially-read author taking space on my shelves.

Not the send-off a lifelong Man Of Letters might hope for, but on deeper consideration it's not so bad, either. Sometimes a back-handed compliment remains a compliment nonetheless.

I've read five of his novels and one collection of short stories to completion, and made a bold start on all of the others. My first Doctorow novel was the mass-market paperback release of Billy Bathgate. I enjoyed it well enough, at the time, but also had some serious issues with it -- serious enough to initially relegate Doctorow to a second-tier of contemporary American writers, the sort I was inclined to "attend to the buzz, not the work."

His status evidently changed.

In Billy Bathgate, Doctorow's prose tilts toward the lyrical, a mode that either sways or dissuades, depending. Nowhere is this more evident than in his sex scenes, of which the book has two. I've gone and transcribed them elsewhere for you, but first a word of warning -- no illustrations, photos or gifs are involved, but if words alone can trigger the alarms of your employer's ISP, Doctorow's words will surely do it. NSFW, in other words, but over here I shall keep the discussion of them relatively prim.

Alright -- once again, NSFW  -- but if you feel you must, off you go: scene 1 and scene 2.

To summarize:

In scene 1 our titular hero is an adolescent guttersnipe who, now in the employ of gangster Dutch Schultz, has largesse at his disposal. He throws a party for his neighbourhood peers in a tenement boiler-room. At evening's end, when the others have either left or passed out, he finds that Rebecca, a young prostitute he's employed in the past, appears to view him, for once, as an object of desire. She initiates sexual congress, which concludes to their mutual satisfaction.

In scene 2 the slightly older Billy has Dutch's (significantly older) moll, Drew, to himself. A weird but understandably tense attraction has been growing between Billy and Drew, and in the privacy of New York State's farmland they no longer constrain themselves. They indulge in an initial, brief coupling in the car. Then Drew, completely naked, scampers into the woods, with the also-nude Billy in tow. They descend to swamp-level, where they cover themselves in mud, then walk hand-in-hand "like fairy-tale children [toward] this still pond as black as I had ever seen water to be and of course she waded in and bid me to follow and my God it was fetid, it was warm and scummy, my feet were in wet mats of pond weed, I treaded water to keep my feet from sinking and couldn't crawl back out fast enough but she swam on her back a few yards and then came crawling out on all fours, and she was covered with this invisible slime" -- invisible slime which, in the ensuing sentences, proves itself the Cambrian equivalent of KY Jelly.

Twenty-five years ago, whenever I discussed the book with others who'd read it, I argued that scene 1 persuaded, while scene 2 was an affront to any reader possessed of common sense. There were obvious reasons why Doctorow wrote it, and kept it there -- "fairy-tale children," Milton's Adam and Eve, only primordial and morally suspect from the git-go, a lampoon of Puritan America's own myth of origin, I get it, no mas! -- but Manhattan's brightest editors are paid the big bucks to challenge such self-indulgent impulses. Aren't they?

Twenty-five years later, having consumed or significantly sampled the bulk of Doctorow's work, it's evident this was simply his default mode. He was always pulling this shit. And especially with the sex. So much so that I imagine it amused him to hear of readers like myself getting their noses out of joint on the matter.

Anyway, Billy Bathgate was deposited in my used-book trade-in box, until a prof assigned The Book of Daniel as mandatory reading. It surprises me not at all to see The Book of Daniel mentioned more frequently and with more passion than any other Doctorow novel (including Ragtime) in reminiscences of the man and his work. That book knocked me on my ass, took my breath away -- it's the only Doctorow novel I recommend without reservation. It struck me when I was young and super-impressionable, and it's the sole reason why I've made a point of picking up everything else Doctorow's done.

In the main I tend to favour his essays, which are subtler in their mischief.

He wrote a loving eulogy for Abbie Hoffman, for example, elevating Hoffman's frequently egoistic street theatre to that of the Divinely-ordained biblical prophets. Doctorow's own dialogue with his inherited Abrahamic religion (and its offshoots) was deeply engaged and nuanced -- moreso than Hoffman's ever was. But Doctorow's unfeigned admiration for Hoffman came to mind as I recently perused the work of the West Coast Underground Comix artists.* Crumb, Deitch, Rodriguez -- these fellas and their cohort run the left-wing gamut, for the most part. But first and foremost and above all else, these guys are, to a man, robustly phallocentric in their critiques of what they deem the Dominant Culture.

It struck me, then, that this might well have been the effect Doctorow strove for. We may never know if Doctorow had any facility for stippling or cross-hatching, but he certainly flung around words like so much india ink. And he definitely had a hippie-dude's pornographic sensibility -- sex scenes aren't just scenes, alright? They're theatre, man! You don't like it, look away. Can't do it, can you?

So what if he couldn't be the singular East Coast Underground Comix artist -- he could still be Manhattan Island's ... what -- "bad boy of lit-fic"? That's no fun, there's no "x"! "Lix-fic"? At immediate blush I simply can't recall whether any of his protagonists summoned the wherewithal to issue oral stimulation, but hey -- why not? Let's just say it's so and make it so.
"I could be a randy nutter,
Get my gal to fetch the butter,
If I only drew a frame..."
L'chaim, and God rest, dude. You kept me reading long after I set your peers down for the last time.

*Underground Comix -- I can't decide if this subterranean preoccupation of mine is a curiosity, an obsession or a vice. Decide for yourself, why doncha: here is my on-line resource. The initial launching pad is relatively SFW. After that, proceed with caution.

And the late D.G. Meyers seems never to have troubled himself with Doctorow. He had some pertinent thoughts on sex and the novel, however.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Promissory Notice

I'm pulling together some thoughts on the late E.L. Doctorow. In the meantime, here are some links you might dig.

Douglas Coupland has some thoughts on this business with Greece.

Locke Peterseim brings Sullen, Bitter, Grumpy and Cynical to Pixar's never-ending Inside Out party. Full disclosure: I was a puddle when it came time to say goodbye to Bing-Bong. And I'm completely on-board with Peterseim.
"'Cynical'? Oh, he's just up around the bend!"
"Follow your bliss" was a common bit of advice back in the 80s, when I was avoiding coming-of-age. Here's a fella doing exactly that. Make of it what you will.

And finally, Ahmed Best, the guy who played Jar Jar Binks isn't just a cool interview -- he'll kick your ass, if that's what's needed.