I am no longer sure ‘Distractions’ is appropriate.  The summer gig is under way and that is the main distraction from my writing.  But it’s not superfluous like a distraction is.  It’s just a higher priority for the time being.

A lot of processing is done on the computer, so I have spent a lot of time on Netflix streaming The Office.  Why don’t more TV vendors do this?  It will end up on the Net eventually, but if on Netflix or on Hulu then, at least, they make some money off of it.  Here’s the better test.  The shows that I do follow, that are available for me to view for free, even though Netflix is a sunk cost, are harder for me to find on the free non-compensating sites.  Plus, the HBO shows could probably fetch higher premiums from Netflix because havign those shows stream might attract members.

It’s always comforting to find a well known author speak to my overriding sense of theory: there is too much focus, often unacknowledged, on the mind and not enough on the body/mind organism.  Here’s Paul Auster talking about the organism:

Writing is physical for me.  I always have the sense that the words are coming out of my body, not just my mind….Not only do you write books physically, but you read books physically as well.  There’s something about the rhythms of language that correspond to the rhythms of our own bodies.  An attentive reader is finding meanings in the book that can’t be articulated, finding them in his or her body. (2007, 27)

How very Massumi of Auster.

Alexander Star, the editor of Lingua Franca, has a piece about the state of fiction.  It’s mainly a review of literature, which concludes by aping the famous Jonathan Franzen essay.  Not impressive, but it is a good read if you are interested in a survey of the debate.  A debate that has apparently been put to rest since 1996.  Yawn.

A short diddy by a high school friend at The Second Pass about Glenn Beck’s new novel.  It includes links to more robust … hilarity.

Auster, Paul.  (2007).  Jonathan Lethem talks to Paul Auster.  In V. Vida, ed.  (2007).  The Believer book of writers talking to writers (25-42).  NY: Believer Books.

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I am convinced the best Story is the love from afar.  Here is a recent entry (a good entry even in a nearly-impossible-to-fail genre):

Molly Auerbach’s “The Shiksa

Of course, the nose is not actually happening.  It is the fantast-ic frame which is really what the genre is about: exposing our insecurities or our confidences.  Usually this genre occupies a song form: Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amore”, natch, and Coldplay’s “Shiver” are the genre par examplance.

Blogging is also the genre put into another form.  Which is why I love it so.  This insight (yes, a confidence) helps complete Jodi Dean’s recent incompleteness.

More to follow to-morrow are as I discuss Mel Gibson’s latest, Edge of Darkness, and the Fear of Death.

Best.

The Prometheus Deception
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I am giving up on yet another book, Robert Ludlum’s The Prometheus Deception. I made it to page 89 but I feel as though it is written for high schoolers who need help seeing things.  First, a synopsis of the first few pages because it is an interesting idea.  Bryson is a spook working for The Directorate, a super secret organization fighting the evil commies.  So super secret that the Presidential award he is awarded cannot be given to him, he is given only a glimpse of it.  An error happens and Bryson is put to pasture as an academic in Pennsylvania.  At first I was offended, as though academics were so easy to get into, but then it is Pennsylvania (remind me someday to tell of my experience with an education major from a tiny liberal arts school in central PA).

A few years go by and Bryson is contacted by the CIA who tell him that The Directorate was instead a KGB (or was it GRU?) front set up to recruit the best and the brightest (common knowledge in the Reagan years that we were much smarter and capable) who did not have to pose as Americans.  Bryson then goes to uncover the current workings of The Directorate.  An intereting idea, so interesting that I am fairly certain I have encountered it somewhere else.  Have I tried to read this book before and gave it up then as well?

The scene where I finally called no mas finds Bryson on a large container ship that is an arms merchant platform.  His cover is blown and he is on the run.  He runs into the engine room.  The lights are turned off and he is being pursued by four men using night vision goggles, never mind the heat from the engines ought to wreck the utility of the NVGs.  Bryson is trapped against a bulkhead and shooting blindly.  Someone else enters and shoots his pursuers dead.  The other, a woman – sacre bleu! – turns on a light and tells him to follow.  Bryson, of course, argues and tests her for it not being a trap.  A trap?  Even if it is a trap, of course it is you undercover spook, you go with her because not going with her means death.  Ludlum decides to lecture the readers with the following nonsensical exchange.

Bryson stared at the woman.

“Come on!” she called, her voice rising in desperation.  “If I wanted to kill you, I would have done so already.  I’ve got the advantage, I’ve got the infrared – not you.”

“You don’t have the the advantage now,” Bryson called back, his grip steady on his stolen weapon, lowered at his side.

“”I know this ship inside and out.  Now, if you want to stay here and play games, be my guest.  I have no choice now but to get off the ship.  Calcanis’s security force is large – there are plenty of others, probably on their way right now.”  With her free hand she pointed toward an object mounted high on one of the bulkheads near the ceiling of the generator room.  Bryson recognized it as a surveillance camera….Unlatching [a hatch cover], she glanced back and jerked her head toward the opening, signalling him to follow.

Bryson hesitated no more than a few seconds before he did so. (95)

Really?  We needed all that?  Of course not, but for some reason Ludlum thought we did.  And.  And, I had left out about a paragraph of her explaining to him how following her was his only option.  No shit. I also left out the end of the previous chapter where she is again telling him he has no option but to follow her.

There were other moments of the book, but that passage was the straw that broke my back.  I love thrillers and even mysteries but why are so many of them written with such disdain for the reader?  I think of writing as I think of TV.  Maybe the audience is fille dof mainly idiots, but that’s okay as long as the story is interesting and the writing good.  People comeback for more, they understand there are smarter people in the world and most people are fine with that.  ER was a show that proved that theory.

Here is the problem now, what to read next?  I am away from my library and I only have heady stuff left but I am in the mood for some lighter fare.  Just not Ludlum light.

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No sooner have I written the previous post than I begin chapter two of Chaloupka’s Kowing Nukes. Here is his argument:

…the warrior is now simply and starkly absent.  For several reasons (technological, political, and theoretical), the warrior has ceased to hold any kind of posibility.  Instances where the warrior seems to be present – Panama, Liberia, Grenada, Afghanistan, even the Persian Gulf – quickly present themselves as failures, spectacles, or exercises in nostalgia. (24)

It is precisely the absence of the warrior, also read as the increasing sociality of our civilization, that gives rise to so much literature about warriors.  Some may respond to Chaloupka that 9/11 returned us to a world that had ceased when he wrote the above words in 1992.  However, the remainder of the book pre-empts this argument by claiming nuclear weapons are an example fo the shift away from warriors and that our current world has not seen such a large revision to return us to the simpler times.  Der Derian’s Virtuous War (2001) is a better accounting of this shift than Chaloupka provides, but that is also easily acocunted for by the intended market for the two books.

The crux of my thought for now is that the Western and the espionage thriller are a romantic’s response to the increasing alienation we feel in our world.  I believe this alienation is inevitable and defines the human condition, but some reach out to a past time as a way to bridge the human gap.  Strip away the grocery stores and the deeply troubling give and takes of a long term healthy relationship and the writer is left with a solitary figure marked on the desolate horizon.  It’s the simple protagonist conflicted against a simple environment that best analogically allows the writer to conquer the true foe.

Chaloupka, William.  (1992).  Knowing nukes.

Der Derian, James.  (2001).  Virtuous war: Mapping the military-industrial-media-entertainment network.


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Raw Power album cover
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I love Cold War fiction.  I mean that very precisely.  Some people think I mean espionage literature and that is not the case, because something is lost in the current crop of espionage thrillers.  The enemy is not as cunning and when they are it feels arbitrary and forced.  What I just said might be taken to border on some racism or negative stereotype: Arabs as a backwards and stupid people vis a vis us sophisticated folk.

My take is close to this but not because of anything intrinisic to the enemy.  The enemy is behind us in intelligence gathering capabilities as well as in motivation, they are after all still involved in an internal struggle for the future of their society whereas we are the outside intervention looking to mold them into our image.  That is a very different story to the classic Cold War espionage thriller and I am sad to see the genre shift.  I will outline a classic of Cold War fiction and hopefully the differences are easily seen.

I recently finished reading one of the classics, had there been enough time I am sure it might have become a touchstone of the genre, by one of the classic writers: Nelson DeMille’s Talbot Odyssey.  If you are a fan of the werewolf genre then you might also enjoy this story – yes, Talbot is that Talbot.  Not as well written as LeCarre’s novels, but it resonates like LeCarre does: as a Western.  All the familiar tropes are there: lethal environment (in this book set inside a hostile shooting Cold War), one man alone, a stunning and impossible achievement of the masculine image, narrator’s cultural criticism and the obligatory surprise twist.

The most important quality is probably the idealized masculinity because the rest of the book is informed and is a backdrop for this image.  I will provide for you a couple of places where DeMille drops these images in this book.

“As the Duke of Wellington said when asked to impart a piece of enduring military wisdom, ‘Piss when you can.'” (338)

The necessary self-sufficiency to survive is an important aspect of these thrillers.  Without resourcefulness and a willingness to disregard societal norms the hero is sure to fail and be sucked into the maelstrom that is eating away at the very society he is trying to save.

He remembered a favorite line from Thoreau: “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” (81)

Never forget though that self-sufficient man is indebted to his predecessors and hence the self-sufficient man is well-read, an ubermensch.  It is not a far stone’s throw to see DeMille writing about a man making a horseback trip across the wild west, camping at night over a fire, can of beans and reading a book with a pistol in his lap.  The clothes on his back are all that he brought for the trip, saving more important space for more important things.

Now we come to the ubermensch’s approach to the modern environment, namely the social environment:

There are basically five ways to hunt – baiting, trapping, stakeouts, beating the bush, and decoying.  it depends on the animal you’re after, the season of the year, and the terrain.  With the human animal, you can use all methods, or combinations of methods, in any season and terrain.  Just keep in mind that when the human animal approaches, he may take any form, including the guise of a friendly animal.  He may wave a cheery hello, or ask for a cigarette.  But you must relaize you ar ebeing attacked, and in that split second of realization you have to act, becasue a second later it’s too late. (260)

It’s hard to miss the romantic ideal of fighting and always being on guard DeMille longs for in this piece.  I am also seduced by these images.  The few months after being hit by the car I would wander the streets and was always imagining an immanent fight.  It was warming to imagine that I can be vigilant enough to save myself.  It restored a sense of purpose and control.  It’s how I suspect people who cut themselves are trying to reassert a sense of control over their bodies.  Iggy Pop’s slow suicide is how Lester Bangs describes that reclamation of control.  And yet we know the world is no longer like that, which is precisely why people write and read these thrillers.

All of the above are ways these books serve to idealize a certain image of man.  Those images then give way to cultural criticism, often a very silly and tired form of criticism.

Its ceiling beams and oak paneling still gave it the flavor of a hunting lodge, but the mounted animal heads and horns were gone, replaced by oversize canvases of proletarian art: smiling, well-muscled men and women working in the fields and factories.  The early capitalists, reflected Abrams, mounted animals they probably never shot, the ruling Communists displayed pictures of happy workers they probably never saw.  The noble and idealized creatures of the earth were destined to wind up as wwall decorations for the elite.  in a just and orderly world, perhaps, capitalists would shoot, stuff, and mount Communists, and vice versa, leaving the wildlife and working people in peace. (321)

DeMille is smart enough to be a cynic but does he not realize that this ubermensch, the man above ideology, is like the wildlife and like the happy proletariat nothing but a fiction?  A mythical beast wandering the world in search of a home.  DeMille’s vision smacks me like McCarthy’s does.  My frst thought is always: the world is not this hard.  But that seems to be the issue, they wish the world were that hard because that hardness is what weeds out the chaff from the wheat.  Deep down they are romantics and environmental hardship is their antiseptic for the world’s over-developed sense of sociality.

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London, UK
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Paul la Farge has a review of Littell’s The Kindly Ones in the newest issue of The Believer.  Criticized as too encyclopedic and too sadistic (the protagonist is an SS officer that killed his mother and stepfather, anally rapes his sister and enjoys his job overseeing the Lublin concentration camp) la Farge, agreeing with those sentiments, wants to find out why it is such a compelling read.

La Farge seems particularly captivated by the encyclopedic nature of the book.  Max Aue, the protagonist, is painted by la Farge more as a scanner and less person, taking in everything and remembering everything with inhumane clarity in a strategic realism– a “refusal to sort important from unimportant”. (4)

There is then a meander through Eichmann’s trials and Arendt’s reporting of the trial culminating in her Banality of Evil.  To avoid the banality of citing the banality (la Farge’s joke, not mine) he paraphrases it (well done, in my opinion) as “the danger of Too Much Information: if your mind is occupied with bureaucratic turf wars, how can you make room to think about what’s happening in the crematoriums that smoke just a few hundred meters away…?” (6)  Why is this banality, this overemphasis of information over knowledge so compelling?  La Farge does not venture a guess except to cite the constitutive lack, that people are intrinsically incomplete.  This is also the reason la Farge claims The Kindly Ones is so compelling: “it offers a complete world that masks the reader’s incompleteness; its fantastic descriptions set ablaze those lazy (or young, or sad) minds that want nothing to be left to the imagination.” (8)

I do not believe la Farge is honest when he says this method is persuasive to the lazy, young or sad.  La Farge was compelled by The Kindly Ones and I doubt he would group himself into those pejorative labels.  Instead, it is quite likely that la Farge believes all people are compelled by the constitutive lack and consequently all people find the totalitarian story compelling.  This is where la Farge’s argument breaks down: psychoanalysis can reduce people’s urges to a primal cause but all people then interpret the solution to that same cause differently.

Some may be drawn to the totalitarian state and yet others may be drawn to classic auto shows while some are drawn to Furry Conventions or picking navel lint.  In a strict reduction we may appear alike but we all manifest differently.  The constituent lack does not explain why The Kindly Ones is compelling.  La Farge knows this problem exists for his argument which is why he sets out the purpose of the essay with a qualification that denies the very exigency for the purpose: “The Kindly Ones isn’t a comfortable experience, or an ennobling one, but it’s certainly compelling, at least for some readers[emphasis mine].  The question I want to ask is, why?”  Why does the question need to be asked if this book, like all books, is about preference?

What la Farge’s essay completely overlooks in the success of The Kindly Ones is style.  I am surprised to see this error in a post-Seinfeld world.  Jerry and George launched a sitcom about nothing.  They realized that content is irrelevant as long as the writing is good.  People want to be entertained and what they find entertaining is nearly irrelevant.  ER also provided this lesson.  Critics and producers told Michael Crichton the show was to jargon filled.  Too technical.  Crichton correctly took the chance that people were engaged not by the accuracy of a technology but by compelling characters and stories.   No content can sell and too much content can sell.  It’s all about storytelling.  La Farge spends no time talking about style.  He does, however, cite (4) a passage towards the end of the book to demonstrate his scanner theory, but the passage really demonstrates less realism and more style.  Good writing sells even if, nay especially if, we hate the protagonist.

La Farge’s essay is useful for other questions though.  His description and paraphrasing of Arendt’s banality of evil is one of the better concisions I have ever encountered.  La Farge also provides a persuasive account, not at all unlike Erich Fromm’s, of why people are drawn to submission.  There is also a nice walk through ancient Greek literature particularly the Orestes (otherwise known as The Kindly Ones.)  The best part of la Farge’s essay though is a theory about information and knowledge drawn out of Arendt’s theorizations.  Eichmann had information about the camps he oversaw but he did not know the camps.  This break is helpful when analyzing our own world for resistance to change.

For example, Easterly has recently decided to take on the critics who call poverty a human rights violation.  He claims a human rights violation is best reserved for when a victim and a perpetrator can be (easily?) identified.  Easterly then says that while he knows how bad poverty is that these calls are counterproductive.  I will admit that history is on Easterly’s side but that is only because the game is rigged.  The transcript of success can only measure immediate causes and their effects.  The larger calls which shape policies are ignored and the ‘true’ human rights violations are treated as deus ex machina.  Easterly’s criticism fails because of the information/knowledge distinction la Farge raises.  Easterly has information about the ravages of poverty but he does not know poverty.  If he knew poverty he would be more adamant about solving it if for no other reason than he would not sit in his current position en-privileged by the very poverty he wants to fight.

In conclusion I offer William Blake’s words in “The Human Abstract”:

Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody poor,
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.

Easterly, William.  (2009).  Aid Watch, http://blogs.nyu.edu/fas/dri/aidwatch/2009/06/paul_farmer_and_the_human_righ.html.

la Farge, Paul.  (2009).  A scanner darkly.  The Believer, 66, 3-8.

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Cover of "Ulysses"
Cover of Ulysses

I have often thought of publishing stuff in hard-copy.  Friend’s works.  Stuff I like.  I think the place where I should begin is a collection of my favorite short stories.  There is, of course, a copyright issue to deal with since some of my favorites are not yet public domain.  In any case, here is my current list and I am always willing to hear suggestions for additions if I ever did this.

Anton Chekhov.  “The Witch” and “The Lady with the Dog.”

William T. Vollmann.  “Epitaph for Jaguar” and “The Handcuff Manual.”

? Duffy (I forget the first name).  “Payment in Kind.”

A small list for now, but I just read another one that would definitely make the list: Donald Barthelme’s “Alice”. (60 Stories. 68-75.  1981.  NY: Penguin Books.)  It is written oddly, almost a stream of consciousness style, but more accurate than Ulysses or any other attempt I have crossed.  Maybe I just find it accurate because I should be on ADHD medication.  Here is the openeing paragraph for clarification of what I mean:

twirling around on my piano stool my head begins to swim my head begins to swim twirling around on my piano stool a dizzy spell eventuates twirling around on my piano stool I begin to feel dizzy twirling around on my piano stool (68)

Barthelme’s style here does a good job of relating the dizzyness, but the rest of the story is also written like this.  I wonder then how unique the dizzy sensation is.  Does the narrator always feel like he is twirling on a piano stool?  While I think I have that feeling more than most, at least since being hit by the car, I can tell that it accelerates at times.

Here is one of the slower paragraphs to help demonstrate the haze riddled world of the narrator:

I maintain an air of serenity which is spurious I manage this by limping my limp artful creation not an abject limp (Quasimodo) but a proud limp (Byron) I move slowly solemnly through the world of miming a stiff leg this enables me to endure the gaze of strangers the hatred of pediatricians (69)

During high school I had a friend whose father walked with a pronounced limp.  The father was born in Ireland and I think something had happened to him there and he was unable to seek adequate medical attention for it.  The interesting part, though, was my friend’s younger brother who adopted the same limp without having had an injury.

Sometimes when I have been sitting for a while and I then stand and walk, as I am about to do here in my favorite coffee shop in Uptown, what a gorgeous day it is BTW!, I have a stiff leg and I walk with a limp.  I love that limp though. I imagine people see me and think that I earned it in some glorious spectacle.  In any case, Bartheleme’s story turns on a feeling, Byron’s pride, to which I can immediately relate and have never before shared with another writer.  Therin lies some of Barthelme’s magic: his keen eye.  I would recommend this book for anyone wanting to read some great short pieces of fiction.

I will leave you with a joke Ursa‘s cousin told me the other day:

A man in the area was walking and sees the neighborhood mentally ill man with a rabbit.  The man is crying and emotionally wrought because the rabbit is ill.  The original man thinks the rabbit is fine but knowing the character takes him to the neighborhood vet, where they ar eboth well known.  The vet talks to them and understands that all he needs to do is look the rabbit over and diagnose it as alright and the guy will be happy and content.  They are shown into an exam room and the vet leaves, saying he will return shortly.

The two men and the rabbit are in the exam room and a labrador retreiver runs into the room.  The men stiffen with anxiety, but the rabbit is fine and the lab just sniffs around some.  A woman enters, apologizes and retrieves the lab, exiting for the lobby.  The door remains open.

A black cat then runs into the room and also sniffs around.  Neither the cat nor the rabbit react as the men do.  Again the owner comes into the room, apologizes and leaves with the cat.

A few minutes later the vet returns and declares that the rabbit is fine.  he then hands a bill for $500 to the first man.  “Doc, I thought you’s just look him over and …you know,” the man says in hushed tones hoping to not give away the show to the mentally ill man.

The vet replies, “yes, but I have to charge you for the cat scan and the lab report.”

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