Monday, July 13, 2015

The Legend of Charlie Manson

"These children that come at you with knives, they are your children. You taught them. I didn't teach them. I just tried to help them stand up."
--Charles Manson



There seems to be a resurgent groundswell of interest in Charlie Manson nowadays. There was the NBC miniseries Aquarius, a dramatized riff on the murders and in podcast land there's the ongoing Manson-in-Hollywood storyline on the series, You Must Remember This. But what launched all this interest in Charlie Manson was undoubtedly the new biography, Manson, written by Jeff Guinn and published in 2013. As a teenager, I'd read Helter Skelter, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's 1974 book on the Manson murders. Except for the antics of a few Manson Family members, nothing much has changed in the four decades to warrant a new book. Nevertheless, a different writer (also a less personally involved biographer than Bugliosi) would find different aspects of Manson's life to highlight. The consequence is a biography that is nearly unputdownable. No one symbolizes the decline and collapse of 1960s counterculture as Charlie Manson does. He is the Boogeyman incarnate to every mother and father worried about their kids straying into delinquency or worse.

Manson is written chronologically, from his parents' ill-fated meeting to the present day. Charlie Manson has lived for 80 years, but the biography specifically focuses on just four years of his life, from his arrival in San Francisco in March, 1967 to his guilty verdict in his circus trial in early 1971. Of course he had a terrible childhood and by the time he was 33 had spent the majority of his life in prison, where he had cobbled together a philosophy gleaned from aspects of the bible, pimps, Dale Carnegie, and Scientology. He had listened to the Beatles. He loved their music and dreamed of being as big a rock star as they were. However, he'd spent nearly the entire decade in correctional facilities so when he'd arrived in the Bay Area in 1967 it was like stumbling into Ground Zero of student activism (Berkeley and its Free Speech Movement) and the sex and drugs revolution (San Francisco's Haight Ashbury) without having witnessed or understood its flowering.

Manson's biographer calls Charlie "the wrong man in the right place at the right time." It didn't take long for someone so charismatic and skillfully manipulative to weave spells on emotionally insecure, drug-addled teenage girls. Free love and drugs became essential Manson tricks for running his personal harem. But as eventful as San Francisco was in the late 1960s, it wasn't Charlie's scene. He wanted to be a rock star and the recording industry was down in LA. Through a series of petty tricks and some swindling, he secured himself an old yellow schoolbus and he and the girls headed south.

Manson had convinced some of his followers that he was Jesus reincarnated

The thing about Manson is his story is the extreme version of what had been a very strange, exceptionally unique period in American society. And things got really weird in LA. His Family grew, not just with girls but guys too. LSD trips and group orgies which Manson directed became nightly bacchanals. But nothing really mattered much until Manson could secure a record contract. And despite being an ex-con with no musical background and limited talent, he befriended and auditioned with some prominent personalities including Paul Rothschild (the Doors producer), Frank Zappa, Neil Young, and notably Dennis Wilson from the Beach Boys and Terry Melcher, Doris Day's son, and a Boy Wonder at Columbia Records, producing numerous rock and roll hit records. Not only did Manson get inside Dennis Wilson's house-- he lived at Wilson's Bel Air pad in the summer of '68-- he got in Wilson's headspace as well, Wilson introducing him to nearly everyone he knew as a genius including Terry Melcher. Melcher hung out with him a little bit, but wouldn't let himself get too close. After auditioning Charlie he decided against signing him and put him out of his life. Until early 1969 Terry Melcher and his girlfriend, Candice Bergen, lived at 10050 Cielo Drive.

10050 Cielo Drive is, of course, where Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowsky and Steve Parent were brutally murdered by Manson Family members Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkle. This is the watershed moment not just in Manson's life but in the downward spiral of hippie counterculture itself. How Manson convinced his followers to kill for him has terrified society for years. It was a very complicated moment for his cult: Manson had been preaching Helter Skelter for months, which was that an uprising by blacks (Manson was racist and feared the Panthers) would destroy the white race but blacks would be unable to govern and enlist the Manson Family to lead them (the followers hiding out in an underground abyss in Death Valley during Armageddon). All this was communicated to Manson in the Beatles' White Album. Of course, this sounds like absolute poppycock, but Manson Family members were heavily drugged on psychedelics and these were very paranoid times: Vietnam, race riots, urban uprisings, radical bombings, and political assassinations. What if a great race war was coming? What if Manson were right?

The Tate Murders had a two-fold purpose. One was to incriminate blacks so that they would be blamed for the high profile killings and thus take revenge on whites, jumpstarting the race war. To do this they smeared "Pigs" on the wall with Tate's blood. The other urgent matter was freeing a Manson associate, musician hunk Bobby Beausoleil, by doing a copycat murder so it would look like Bobby was innocent of the murder of Gary Hinman (an extortion deal of a music teacher/drug dealer gone bad that Manson had been involved in and thus eager to escape implication). He'd ingrained in his followers one of the tenets of Scientology-- that life and death were the same thing and thus it wasn't exactly murder but expediting the transmigration of the soul. Nuts, yes, but his followers, especially Tex Watson and Susan Atkins believed it and everyone wanted to be Charlie's favorite.

The Tate murders made sensational headlines but because the media failed to mention the Black Panthers connection, Manson had Watson, Atkins, and Leslie Van Houten murder a middle class couple, the LaBiancas, the following night. Los Feliz was a different neighborhood than Bel Air, and though the murders were just as grisly with bloody slogans splattered on the walls: "Rise," "Death to Pigs," and a misspelled "Healter Skelter," LAPD didn't connect the crimes. Amazingly, there were different detectives working on each case and it took police almost four months to crack the case. Luckily, Manson and some members of the family were already in custody in Death Valley after authorities confiscated some stolen dune buggies. The week the police announced Manson and his sect as the prime suspects in the Tate murders, four people died at the Altamont Free Concert in San Francisco. Between Manson and the bad press at Altamont, the hippie dream died that week. Longhairs weren't just slackers or bums, but were actually very dangerous. The trial of Manson and his followers would only highlight in detail how far gone down a rabbit hole Manson's hippie cult had fallen.

Not your average teenage hippie runaways

Like Adolf Hitler before him, all Charlie Manson wanted was to be a famous, respected artist. To be honest, his music isn't bad, better than a lot of groups at the time and sometimes, particularly when the Manson girls are singing, somewhat beautiful. If Terry Melcher had signed Manson to a record deal, he would have never been as big as the Beatles, but maybe Sharon Tate and her friends would still be alive today. Maybe the hippie dream, too, instead of dying a slow death in the 1970s, might have flourished and evolved and the United States would be a  more tolerant, liberal country today. The great, tragic irony is that Charlie Manson got his wish of eternal fame. And maybe some place this very moment some kid is listening to Manson's music, tripping out that this hippie murdering madman maybe had some good tunes too. And the other, great irony is that Manson did not murder anyone himself. But what had condemned Manson and made him so terrifying was that he could rally young people with malleable minds to shed blood for him. And again this echoes Adolf Hitler, who convinced regular people to organize the Holocaust and die for his world view. There is legitimate fear then, that anytime, anywhere, we might be just one charismatic madman away from local or global apocalypse. 

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Lunch with Orson


"A typical few hours-- in short-- some stories, some hopefulness, some creative ideas, some anecdotes, some sadness, some old memories, much shared understanding, many communicative smiles."
-- Henry Jaglom regarding his last lunch with Orson Welles



Of the many larger than life personalities to come out of Hollywood over the last century, there is no one quite so substantial perhaps as Orson Welles. The maker of Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil,  F for Fake, and his legendary Shakesperean adaptations of Macbeth and Othello, lived out his life as an unreconstructed genius, which is to say he was too smart for his own good. At one point or another he had probably antagonized everyone in Hollywood, most especially the suits who could afford to produce a picture. After his wunderkind debut, he had trouble financing his projects, and some of his best films were destroyed in the editing room by antagonistic studio heads. An actor with presence and an incredible voice, his voracious appetite for life led him to becoming a legendary gourmand, with the terrible consequences of obesity and its attendant diseases. The last ten years of his life he struggled to get funding for his numerous unfinished projects, an amazing development when you consider how integral Welles was to moviemaking.

Like Welles, Henry Jaglom is an independent filmmaker who idolized Welles. They became buddies and met weekly at a restaurant called Ma Maison (where Wolfgang Puck got his culinary start in California). The last few years of Welles' life, Jaglom (with Orson's consent) had begun tape-recording their conversations. Two years worth of lunch conversations are collected in My Lunches with Orson (edited by Peter Biskind). A lot of the conversations are Jaglom and Orson talking shop: the travails of financing for Welles' films. They also gossip about the sex lives of stars in Hollywood's golden era and Orson relishes in pontification. The conversations, though freeform rambling are often thematically unique enough for provocative chapter titles ("Everyone should be bigoted" to "It was my one moment of being a traffic-stopping superstar.") 

Throughout, Orson is engaging and eminently quotable. He chastises the chastisers ("Irene Dunne was so dry-toothed and such a good fucking Catholic that I wanted to kick her in the crotch."). He impugns aesthetes with wide-ranging tastes ("I say there's a point where somebody can't really dig that other fellow if they dig this one. Our eyes, our sensibilities, are only so wide.") And ironically, he condemns the film industry (sneaking in a smear on ballet while he's at it): "You know, I'm not interested in other filmmakers-- and that's a terribly arrogant thing to say-- or in the medium. It's the least interesting art medium for me to watch that there is. Except ballet-- that's the only thing less interesting." Orson has a bombastic personality and perhaps a penchant for exaggeration, often  inserting himself Zelig-like into the lives of many an icon, but he peppers his relevance with an anecdote suggesting some truthfulness. While Jaglom does adore Welles, they're tight enough for Jaglom to call "Bullshit," when Welles really winds himself up.

But Welles can be something of a philosopher too. In one conversation, Jaglom is feeling guilty about failing to give up his film career to do good work in Africa. Their talk evolves into free will and the nature of good and evil. Orson, guilty as anyone of living for himself rather than the dying stranger is nevertheless cognizant of his shared culpability: "Even if there is nothing out there except a random movement of untold gases and objects, sin still exists. You don't need a devil with horns. It's a social definition of sin. Everything we do that is self-indulgent, and that is selfish, and that turns us away from our dignity as human beings is a sin against what we were born with, the capacities we have, what we could make of this planet."

Orson Welles and Henry Jaglom

Later in the conversation he acknowledges that a number of people depend on him-- not just family, but actors and technicians for work, and of course there was his audience. He can do much more collective good as a filmmaker than as another body distributing foodstuffs in Ethiopia. But this isn't arrogance, this is truth. Most of the talks between Jaglom and Welles are humorous but there is an underlying current of sadness in that by the 1980s, Orson had become a has-been. If he could have walked away he might have found closure with his past. He couldn't-- not just because he needed the work to pay off his debts, but a certain indelible pride precluded him from retiring from what he did best. The man never stopped plotting, scheming, dreaming. Welles died the night of October 10th, 1985, with a typewriter on his lap.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Life in Poisonville


"Play with murder enough and it gets you one of two ways. It makes you sick, or you get to like it."



Dashiell Hammett's 1929 novel, Red Harvest, begins when our story's narrator, an unnamed detective from the Continental Agency, arrives in a small California town called Personville, pronounced and better known as Poisonville by the local population. While the detective is waiting for his client at his house, Donald Willsson, the client, is murdered. There are some obvious suspects, Willsson's gold digging wife, Mrs. Wilson, as well as a femme fatale called Dinah Brand and of course there are the local bootlegging gangsters-- Lew Yard and Pete the Finn, and a gambler monikered  Max "Whisper" Thaler. We're not a third of the way into the book before we've nabbed our killer (who is, of course, not one of the usual suspects), but there are too many bad guys in town for our detective to close the case and move on just yet. The detective cajoles the town's millionaire patriarch, the dead Donald's father, Elihu Willsson to employ him to root out the city's rampant corruption.

Turns out that Donald Willsson was one of the few reformers in town. His father Elihu, had built the city and it was a prospering mining town when city workers began striking fore better wages and living standards. Rather than give in and provide his miners with a better life, Elihu called in scabs to break the strike and gangsters to enforce his will. The strike was broken, the people's will demoralized, but the byproduct of Willsson's victory was villains staying on and taking over the city. Even the chief of police is in on the take and no one is safe from a double crossing. Thus Willsson's (albeit reluctant) acquiescence to the Continental Operative.

Though it begins like a conventional murder story, it does not stop there. A lot of people die in Red Harvest (one of the chapters is titled "The 19th Murder.") I suppose when one is birthing a genre, it is bound to be painful, and Hammett's novel is if not the first, one of the earliest novels of hardboiled noir fiction. The stories are violent, complex, and full of surprises, which are interesting in themselves, but the best reason to read the genre is the tough guy argot that permeates every page. Even more so than the Whouddnit aspect, it is the novel's language that makes it so uniquely noir. Nearly every line in the book is tightly wrought, a bit cruel, somewhat funny, often smart-ass: "'Who shot him?' I asked. The grey man scratched the back of his neck and said: "Someone with a gun." The bad girls are incorrigibly bad but they are also tough, smarter than nearly everybody and hold their own boldly. Dinah Brand might be the nexus for every scam in town but she's a survivor in a time when most women gave up their freedom for housework. Her lines are among the choicest in the novel:  "You're drunk, and I'm drunk, and I'm just exactly drunk enough to tell you anything you want to know. That's the kind of girl I am. If I like a person, I'll tell them anything they want to know. Just ask me. Go ahead, Ask me."

Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett could write like this because he lived this life as a detective for the famous Pinkerton Agency and had been assigned to investigate labor disputes (not many aspiring writers have such an advantage with "Write what you know" advice). Incredibly talented, he should be more famous than he is (even if you've never heard of Hammett you're probably familiar with his most famous story, The Maltese Falcon, a classic story adapted for the screen with Humphrey Bogart as Hammett's best altar ego detective, Sam Spade). On the surface, noir fiction might seem like absolute mayhem and blanket nihilism, but at its core it's a blistering narrative of the consequences when society goes horribly wrong.  The title, Red Harvest might suggest Communist bushels of wheat, but the real harvest is blood and too much of it. And this violence is begotten not from the will of common thugs, but when political and economic forces conspire into disastrous conditions. Detectives like our hero in the Continental Op might be able to clean up a rotten place like Poisonville, but it's only a small town in a big, big country. Still, it is a start...

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Real Monsters

"What is the cause of man's inhumanity to man? Desensitization. The numbness of the perpetrator. Whether an activity produces pleasure, pain, discomfort, guilt, joy, triumph-- before too long the soul grows tired and stops feeling. It doesn't take long. Not too long at all, and then man becomes the devil, he laughs at his former scruples, he enslaves and tortures without compunction." 



As far as I know it all starts with Joseph Conrad, Africa forever and ever being contemplated as a heart of darkness. Its territory might be well mapped and colonialism finished and slavery (mostly) eradicated, in literature, at least, Africa continues to be represented as a kind of Wild West where adventurers, knaves, and plunderers thrive in the absence of law, order, and justice. Once it was human chattel, then precious metals like gold and diamonds, and lately, it is petroleum and other energy sources sought after by unscrupulous Chinese and terrorists. The great powers have long thrived treating Africans as pawns in the chessboard of diplomacy, not caring so much when pawns get knocked off or their land exploited or destroyed. Often in these stories our hero is the anti-sort, neither heroic nor monstrous, but with some compromised morals being tested by greed, mayhem, and slaughter.
     
Some of the better books I've read in this motif are Norman Rush's Mating and Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter. Denis Johnson's The Laughing Monsters will not be among my favorites. It's about a 30-something adventurer, Roland Nair, who comes to Freetown, Sierra Leone to meet a friend named Michael Adriko, an African who had served in various African armies as well as American military units. Nair works for the N.I.I.A., the Nato Intelligence Interoperability Architecture, which sounds more bureaucratic than mercenary. Like any rough type making do in hell, he gets sloshed and cavorts with prostitutes. Adriko is on his fifth fiancĂ©e, Davidia, a black American beauty whose dad happens to be Adriko's commanding officer from the base he's gone AWOL from. Anyway, Adriko has some get-rich-quick information that's not forthcoming, stringing along an increasingly frustrated Nair, who has his own game going with some info on a US fiber optics cache location that he might or might not sell to an Arab named Hamid, who is probably not one of the good guys.

Speaking of good guys, Nair isn't one of them. He might be our voice in the novel, but there is nothing redeeming about him. He isn't charming, compassionate, sympathetic-- although that might be purposeful, as the true hero might be Michael Adriko, who is mysterious, charming, wily, and though he might be as corrupt or self-serving as Nair, he is, at least, a little bit likable. But corruption wears many faces and an epigrammatic con artist is still a crook. Adriko leads both Nair and Davidia on in a ruse to get them from Sierra Leone to the hinterlands of the Uganda-Congo border to meet his clan (Congo: now we're in genuine Heart of Darkness territory). There are other evil dudes fishing for money in the pot, leading to conflicts, shootouts, getaways-- Adriko runs over an African peasant on a hilltop road, blaming her for not watching the road more carefully. What's another life in Africa, even to an educated African?

Denis Johnson makes the point that this story centers on the shadowy world of post-9/11 scheming: "We talk about how the world has changed since the Twin Towers went down. I think you could easily say the part that's changed the most is the world of intelligence, security, and defense. The world powers are dumping their coffers into an expanded version of the old Great Game. The money's simply without limit, and plenty of it goes for snitching and spying. In that field, there's no recession." But there have always been types like Nair and Adriko, self-serving buccaneers with no loyalties and many frenemies.

Things get pretty messy and ugly in The Laughing Monsters (the title refers to some terrible mountains in remote Congo). Nair and Adriko are captured, interrogated, and then left to die in the jungle, where the novel gets really bizarre, into something so horrific that it seems more waking nightmare than a fight for survival. They end up in a village run by an obese witch-queen named La Dolce, who wears "a buzz-cut Afro on her hippopotamus head, eyes leaping from the sockets and eyelids like birds' beaks closing over them-- her mouth is tiny and round, but it opens to shocking hugeness, displaying many square white teeth." The groundwater is toxic, the peasants are starving, old men have no teeth, children are emaciated and dying and La Dolce is pronouncing this or that drivel while Adriko brandishes a machete and Nair pens sloppy letters to Davidia and an ex-girlfriend. By now, most readers will hardly care whether Nair and Adriko survive yet another quagmire and the climax thus feels more incoherent than terrifying. If I were to tell you (disappointingly) that the ending is a happy one, what would you think I mean? 

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Pro-Youthful Indiscretions

"That world! These days it's all been erased and they've rolled it up like a scroll and put it away somewhere. Yes, I can touch it with my fingers. But where is it?"



This world, rolled up and put away, is the one of hard core hippie drug use from the late 1960s described so elegiacally in Denis Johnson's weird gem of a novel, Jesus Son. The novel (published in 1992, many years after the Woodstock Utopia dream puffed out its last cloud of highfalutin swag joy) is barely that: it's a collection of interconnected stories centering around the experiences of an unreliable narrator, never quite named, but known in some circles as Fuckhead. He scores drugs, makes out with girls, gets in trouble, works low-wage graveyard shifts, and hitchhikes around the Midwest. Our vision of ultra-sixties sinning rarely veers towards small town Kansas street corners, but the fact it does here makes the stories all the more special.

Besides the fact stories like "Car Crash While Hitchhiking" and "Emergency" feature irresponsible narcotics use, Jesus Son is not for everyone due to its resistance to narrative conventions. It's about Fuckhead and his journey from young adult screwup to rehabilitating himself and getting a job and maybe a girlfriend. The prose is gorgeous, pointed, true, and epigrammatic. Describing his buddy on his court date: "He'd looked in his lawyer's eyes and fathomed it would be a short trial." Our narrator on leaving the TV on during casual sex: "But I was afraid to make love to her without the conversations and laughter from that false universe playing in our ears, because I didn't want to get to know her very well, and didn't want to be bridging any silences with our eyes." And Fuckhead on the diaspora of his drug buddies, either dying off or getting clean, but the good times as they knew them gone: "Sometimes what I wouldn't give to have us sitting in a bar again at 9am telling lies to one another, far from God."

Perhaps the best story in the collection does not concern drugs at all, but Fuckhead making a go at reality in suburban Arizona. His days are filled with Narcotics Anonymous meetings and he works at Beverly Home, a hospital for the aged and infirm, caring for patients whose deformities "made God look like a senseless maniac." Besides writing their monthly newsletter, he makes them feel human by sharing with them his smile, his charisma, and his capacity to listen. He dates a dwarf and later a cripple, meanwhile falling in love with a woman's mellifluous voice on his bus route. She sings in the shower and every day he stops to listen. He grows braver, risking more to see and hear. He realizes she and her husband are Mennonites, a conservative splinter group of Christianity famous for its Old World traditions. He spies her naked and hopes to catch her making love, but instead discovers the couple quarreling. It is nighttime and the woman flings the curtain aside with the narrator below on the other side of the window: "My face wasn't two feet from hers, but it was dark out and she could only have been looking at her own reflection, not at me... I thought I heard her weeping. I could have touched a teardrop, I stood that close." But the husband approaches her with contrition, offering to wash her feet and she for a moment resists accepting his move: "She didn't move for a while, not perhaps for a full minute, which seemed like a very long time to me outside in the dark with a great loneliness and the terror of a whole life not yet lived, and the TVs and garden sprinklers making the noises of a thousand lives never to be lived, and the cars going by with the sound of passage, movement, untouchable, uncatchable."

I suppose you call call Jesus Son a coming-of-age book. Youth is a folly but the great folly for the young might be not getting into enough trouble. "The cards were scattered on the table, face up, face down, and they seemed to foretell that whatever we did to one another would be washed away by liquor or explained away by sad songs." Perhaps we can learn about ourselves best while doing our worst. The poetry of youth is written in our errors. As important as an education is no one writes a beautiful song about straight A's. We have time enough to be wise and careful and if we're lucky, many years to look back. Perhaps the hero of Jesus Son took his sprint through the darkness a bit far, but his survival made him a better man. I've long traded on my own youthful catastrophes as good storytelling, having learned that while life gives and takes, you're often lucky enough for second chances. And what they say about sadness being integral to understanding happiness might hold true for the inner peace of growing old. It's possible that there is nothing truly to regret save for having not lived. Live and learn, your elders tell you. Truth.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Ages of Anxiety

"It was six in the morning. Through the open kitchen door, Sophie felt the morning sunlight on her bare feet like a sustained and mindless stare. She poured herself a shot glass of whiskey, then drank it down hastily, catching glimpses, as her head fell back, of the waxed surface of kitchen cabinets, a flash of scoured pots, a line of sharp Sabatier knives gripped by a strip of magnet."



This excerpt, from Paula Fox's Desperate Characters (published in 1970), sounds (specifically) like the quiet, painful breakdown of a desperate housewife. However, Sophie Bentwood is not a housewife, nor quite a character, but a member of the educated class in New York. She translates French literature from home while her husband, Otto, is an attorney. They live in a Brooklyn brownstone in the late 1960s, not yet gentrified and quite dangerous still. Sophie's 6am whiskey is downed on a Monday morning following an atrocious weekend, that while nothing quite horrible happened, enough minor setbacks add up to make for a very anxious novel.

The precipitating crisis is a cat bite. Against Otto's wishes, Sophie is feeding a stray when it attacks her. The bite looks infectious and there is the possibility of rabies. She pretends that it was nothing yet she worries incessantly: "It was only her hand, she told herself, yet the rest of her body seemed involved in a way she couldn't understand. It was as though she'd been vitally wounded." The cat's viciousness is emblematic of the neighborhood's general menace. The ten-minute walk to a friend's party is a minefield: "Beer bottles and beer cans, liquor bottles, candy wrappers, crushed cigarette packs, caved-in boxes that had held detergents, rags, newspapers, curlers, string, plastic bottles, a shoe here and there, dog feces." Neighbors leer, defecate, and masturbate openly. 

Otto bitterly complains about these conditions of urban blight, Sophie tolerating him with some little annoyance. They are a childless couple in their early 40s, not affectionate or even friendly, but have been together so long it's like they have become interdependent on each other's identities. Nevertheless, Sophie once had an affair with Francis, one of Otto's clients a few years back. It did not end dramatically, but with a deflated air, a dull hiss, and it had seemingly meant a lot more to Sophie than it had to Francis. Paula Fox is an incisive writer, with clear, precise, haunting prose, but nothing in the book is as pathetic as how the last motions of Sophie's affair are described:

"They drank a glass of white wine. Absently, he touched her ear lobe. She stood up. He backed her against a wall, pulled up her skirt. She tried to anticipate him. He pressed against her, suddenly turned away, showed her a new book on ferns. She heard the zing of a coin as it rolled out of his pocket and hit the floor. On the couch, he knelt above her, looked down at her body with sharp unimpassioned curiosity. He couldn't control a fit of coughing; it rattled her insides, traveled deep through belly and stomach and chest. She was outraged that he could make her laugh at that moment. But she couldn't stop laughing. They fell off the bed. Her bones weren't such young bones, and they hurt. 'I must give up either smoking or fucking,' he said. The gray return was before her. It was unthinkable to leave him. Sometimes she took a taxi. She rode home seeing nothing, her mouth slightly swollen, her cheeks rosy."

Over the weekend, while Sophie's hand is throbbing they go to a friend's party, where a stone is lobbed through a bedroom window. This too is ominous, but Otto is distracted from Sophie's predicament by his own problems, namely that of his law partner, Charlie, leaving the firm. Charlie comes by the house in the middle of the night and Sophie steals out with him for a drink. It's weird and slightly perfidious, and Sophie confides to Charlie more than she should (about Otto's frame of mind as well as the fact she'd had an affair.) There are distracted visits Sophie makes to the department store and a friend's loft, and finally the emergency room, which as you might imagine is a surreal circle in Dante's hell. 

So Otto and Sophie decide to escape the city, packing lunch boxes and driving to Long Island where they keep a summer home. But they cannot escape the city's worst excesses. As soon as they enter their sleepy cottage, they discover it's been vandalized: "The caning of the dining room chairs and been slashed, sea shells ground to dust on the floor, lamps broken, the Paisley fabric of the couch cover torn into strips, cushions gutted, over every painting or photograph a giant X had been drawn with barn paint...and in front of the fireplace among the heaped up paperback mysteries and magazines, a hummock of dried feces sat like a rotting toad." The implication being of course, nowhere is safe, nowhere is inviolate, and that society was going to the dogs, or worse, rabid cats. The best you could do to escape was die.

The novel's ending hinges on whether or not Sophie has rabies. Though there is a cure, a vaccination (albeit inconveniently administered) does not make it any easier if she were to learn the worst. No matter the lab results, life is simply out of Sophie's hands, her fate continuously mocked by forces far out of her control. So what? you might be asking... It's just a cat bite after all. That the conflicts in Fox's novel are insubstantial or less dramatic than what some readers might expect in no way diminishes the pacing of the novel. Otto and Sophie are rational, intelligent, capable  (if a little edgy) citizens beset by small crises that for all their muster or logic cannot overcome. They are not exactly victims so much as they are overly sensitive to the calamities of modern urban life. They fight futilely with their limited capacities. That Otto and Sophie have each other is not exactly enough when your inner life is so prodigious and inexplicable.  Desperate Characters is a novel for anyone who has felt the world closing in on you, cutting off all escape routes, suffocating your capacity to feel harmonious. Therefore it is relatable to most of us. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Sex is Nice, Morality is Good

"We are human beings, Jessica. We can't just live in the present."


The above words regarding the complexities of living presently, as if one were a jolly zen monk, are spoken by John Ducane, the hero of Iris Murdoch's The Nice and the Good. Jessica is his mistress and he is struggling to break up with her in pleasant fashion so that he can be guilt-free with Kate Gray, the wife of his boss, Octavian, who is described jolly and round (like the Buddha) and who not only tolerates Ducane's dalliances with his wife but encourages them. Very modern, right? Only, Ducane, like most of the sexually confused friends in his circle, struggles not only to be present, but also, nice and good. The novel was published in 1968 and if it is not exactly a buzzkill on the hedonism characterizing late 60s Swinging London, then it is most definitely an eloquent reminder that free love, no matter how blissful, is dangerous in a moral vacuum. 

Ducane is a civil servant charged by Octavian looking into a colleague's suicide. The colleague, Radeechy, had also lost his wife to suicide when she committed suicide the year before. But queries and interviews reveal Radeechy to be  very post-Anglican (or pre-christian), the investigation turning up all kinds of pagan black magic hocus-pocus with hired women, dead pigeons, whips, silver chalices, and Latin cryptograms. It's all a bit untidy and gross and Ducane seeks relief from the case (and the unbearably hot London summer) at Kate's countryside estate in Dorsett. But things are hardly simple there: Kate's there, yes, (Octavian is often busy in London), but so is her nubile young daughter, Barbara, whom Pierce, a sex-starved hormonal teen pines for with unrequited success. Pierce's mother is Mary, a sensible widow who is generously put up in the house with Pierce by Kate. Yet another woman there is Paula, whose husband, Richard Biranne, is a promiscuous cad implicated in the shadowy world to which Radeechy had delved too deeply. She has eleven-year-old twins, Henrietta and Edward, obnoxiously precociously intelligent for their ages. They love fielding questions to Willie Kost, a German Jew intellectual refugee residing in a cottage on the estate. Willie, who  survived Dachau, flirts gently with Mary, while intellectually sparring with Uncle Theo, Octavian's brother, who left India under a scandalous cloud and who might be a repressed homosexual. 

But in the center of it is Ducane, in whose struggle to be nice and good, to, in essence, do the right thing is the moral quest of the novel. He is privileged by wealth, status, and feels this prevents him from being empathetic: "Ducane was being infinitely sorry for himself because the power was denied to him that comes from an understanding of suffering and pain. He would have liked to pray then for himself, to call suffering to him out of the chaos of the world." His suffering, for example his failure to break up with Jessica, is so much more superficial than what he perceives in the depth of others, in Mary and her widowhood or Willie and his internment by Nazi psychopaths. Ducane even tells Kate: "It's hard for people like us with ordinary healthy minds to imagine what it would be like for one's whole mode of consciousness to be painful, to be hell." It is particularly difficult for Ducane with Willie, a morose, dissatisfied intellectual whose emotional lows are impossible for him to bridge: "Duane thought, if I were not the tied-up puritan that I am I would touch him now, take his hand or something." The great irony is that all these lost souls see John as the nexus of niceness and goodness. They are oblivious that his private and professional lives are as muddled as anyone's.

Iris Murdoch is a brilliantly articulate writer who is never boring and whose inventiveness comes across in setting and character as her description of McGrath, a blackmailer in the case of Radeechy so beautifully illustrates: "A man had no right to have such red hair and such a white skin and such pallid watery blue eyes and such a sugary pink mouth in the middle of it all. McGrath was in very bad taste."  Murdoch is also a peculiarly British novelist, at least to me. It is not just the complex cadence of her prose, but also the fidgety contrast between appearance and substance: everyone putting up a calm front but barely for the emotional turbulence of holding back so much of one's true feelings or if disclosed, tampering their confessions with over-intellectualized ideas or sarcastic embellishments. Reading Murdoch one gets the feeling it is painful to be British, to have so much interior life that cannot be confided or related and besides, impossible standards of goodness to live up to. 

Iris Murdoch

Is it for this reason that the novel often felt like a condemnation of the 1960s? No character best illustrates the quality of being morally adrift, of lostness, than Ducane's mistress, Jessica, a failed artist and something of a dilettante flower child, to whom Murdoch is venomous: "But Jessica had never developed the faculty of coloring and structuring her surroundings into a moral habitation, the faculty which is sometimes called moral sense. She kept her world denuded out of a fear of convention. Her morality lacked coherent movies. Her contacts with her contemporaries, and she met no one except her contemporaries, and her very strict contemporaries at that, were so public and so free as to become finally without taste." This is the Old Guard retaliating against the New Guard. But isn't the novel's central purpose in twentieth century literary fiction to explore the parameters of morality so that some sense can be made of the social vacuum we call life? Nice and good are so vague as to be totally without meaning. They barely scratch the surface of what it is to be a better man or woman. Without morality, we are on the proverbial tightrope without a net. It's a long way to fall metaphysically if we don't have the moral armor to deal with the inevitable personal crises that come from being human. Importantly, Ducane's great revelation at the end of the novel is Murdoch's clearest indictment against the sixties zeitgeist and its attendant gratifications: "Perhaps there were spirits, perhaps there were evil spirits, but they were little things. The great evil, the dreaded evil, that which made war and slavery and all man's inhumanity to man lay in the cool self-justifying ruthless selfishness of quite ordinary people."

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Where He's Calling From


"Things change, he says. I don't know how they do. But they do without your realizing it or wanting them to."

Together with my brother-in-law and some friends, we've founded a reading group in Kyoto that meets every three weeks or so and talks about a story one of us has selected for the meeting. We drink whiskey (we are the Monkey Shoulder Gang, or MSG) and talk for a good two hours about the piece in question before, inebriated, we splinter off into conversational factions. When it was my turn I wanted to select a story that I not only loved, but that would really pull the group together into a shared love of fiction. I ended up choosing Raymond Carver's story, "Cathedral," leading me to reread the most famous collection of his work, Where I'm Calling From.



I don't know how many times I've read Where I'm Calling From but I've often turned to Carver whenever I've grown disenchanted with overwrought novels. Carver, who never wrote a novel in his too-short life (he died of lung cancer at 50),  liked short stories because they could be written, read, and pondered over a single sitting. However, Carver's prose is so readable and his narratives so deceptively simple he is easy to binge-read, but not too much because the consequence of his characters' failed lives is usually tragedy. His protagonists, usually first person male narrators, are not living the American Dream. They suffer unhappy families, mistresses, dead-end jobs, money problems, and most especially a bad habit with the bottle. Alcoholism figured largely not only in Carver's life, but in his work as well-- the drunken rages and horrible self-destruction, but also recovery and the extraordinary difficulty in going and staying sober. Carver hailed from the "write what you know" school of realism, but he also seemingly graduated from the school of hard knocks. He is sometimes painful to read, but never dull and occasionally transcendent. 

Carver's prose is sparse, quick, and unambiguous: "This friend of mine from work, Bud, he asked Fran and me to supper." begins his story, "Feathers." Famously, his stories were heavily changed by his famous editor, Gordon Lish, who was spearheading a minimalist movement in literature in the 1980s. (Carver and Lish often sparred over the changes and some of Carver's stories have been published posthumously in their original unedited format.) But the prose is pitch perfect for an everyman screwing up. Carver's narrators often go nameless (their problems are so much more the point). In the story, "Little Things," a disintegrating marriage ends with a couple fighting over their baby biblical-style: "But he would not let go. He felt the baby slipping out of his hands and he pulled back very hard. In this manner, the issue was decided." Straightforward tragedy doesn't need flowery bits or metaphors: it does just fine with straight talk.

"Cathedral" is narrated by an average guy whose wife's pen pal, a blind man, has come for a visit. The guy has preconceived ideas of blind men: they wear sunglasses, they don't have beards, they don't smoke because the pleasure of smoking is seeing their exhalations curling through the air-- he says to his wife, "Maybe we can take him bowling?" He is envious that the stranger has a proprietary claim on his wife's past-- they've been exchanging voice tapes for ten years and when they last saw each other she let the blind man, Robert, touch her face, even her neck. But when Robert does come for dinner and a talk, the narrator (Robert calls him "Bub" throughout the evening) begins to enjoy himself. The blind man-- maybe it is intentional, maybe not-- subtlety shows him how to empathize, to understand what it is like to not only be blind, but how to better see and understand what one senses. This novelty of empathy is joyous-- it's wonderful to feel a part of something larger than oneself: "My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn't feel like I was inside anything."



"Cathedral," with its optimistic happy ending is not necessarily emblematic of the Carver oeuvre, which usually involved a reckoning of karma applicable to guilt: you can only outrun the debt collector so long or tolerate just so much drink before it wrecks havoc. "Cathedral" was written late in Carver's life, revealing that this very autobiographical fabulist was turning a new page. He was seeing past his own problems, into something more collectively human. The quote prefacing this piece about change, while usually thought of as change for the worse, can actually turn out pretty good sometimes. Pain and the horrible are not necessarily inexorable. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Sympathy for the Devil

"Pah, the Devil!" exclaimed the editor.



Mikhail Bulgakov's legendary novel, The Master and Margarita, begins on a park bench in 1930s Stalin-era Russia. A literary editor, Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, is explaining to his contributor poet, Ivan Nikolaevich, that he will have to rewrite his poem about Christ because he wasn't emphatic enough about the non-existence of Jesus. Enter a stranger, a "foreigner," who tells them not only was he present at the crucifixion, but that he, Berlioz, is to be beheaded by a woman that night. Alarmed that such a nutter was prowling Moscow, Berlioz runs off to alert the authorities, but on his way he slips on sunflower oil, stumbling over tram tracks, his head sliced off by a female conductor who can't brake the car in time. Witness to this, a terrified Ivan has a wild night that leaves him running through Moscow's streets in his underwear and eventually into a mental institution.

Such a promising beginning: this stranger, Woland, and his henchmen proceed to terrorize Moscow, most especially its theatrical arts community. Among his retinue are Fagot, an unfortunately named interpreter with cracked pince nez glasses; Azazello, a cross-eyed, single-fanged albino thug in a bowler hat; and Behemoth, a huge black tomcat that walks on hind legs and makes wisecracks. Woland performs at a "seance" exposing the materialistic greed underlying communist Russia, with hundreds of women rushing the stage to shop French wares, while thousands of ten-rouble notes floating from the rafters are lunged for avariciously by audience members (which turn out to be counterfeit). There is a long night of horror where the theater people are visited by these devils; they disappear, some into thin air, others inexplicably to other places in Russia, not unlike what must have happened to many artists, writers, and thinkers in Stalinist Russia. Woland and his bad dudes set up camp in the deceased Berlioz's opulent flat and conduct black magic on any and all parasites or authorities who venture to bother them.

The Bad Guys: Woland, Behemoth, Fagot

What begins with such promise is lost when Bulgakov brings the titular characters into it. The Master and Margarita are star-crossed lovers, the former a frustrated novelist with an unpublished manuscript about Pontus Pilate, Judea's proconsul during the crucifixion, the latter a frustrated housewife/muse. The Master is in the same madhouse as the poet Ivan Nikolaevich, while Margarita is recruited by Azazello to be the hostess at The Great Ball of Satan's (a truly weird moment in a weird book) so that she might be reunited with the Master. So, suddenly, we're in a love story, but a half-assed one, where the characters lack character. We know they love each other because Bulgakov has told us so-- but like nearly everyone in this long, diverging narrative, they aren't fully developed as sympathetic people so this reader at least did not care one way or another whether they stayed together.

How this love story fits into Stalinist Russia I was not able to figure out. Nor did I unravel the enigma of Pontus Pilate, of which passages of the Master's manuscript cover about a fifth of the book-- what the assassination of Judas and Pilate's insomnia has to do with the totalitarian Russia of the 1930s I could not quite make sense of. Nor did I understand why Margarita would champion the novel and the Master's artistic talent. The Master is hardly the type of guy a beauty like Margarita would credibly give up her worldly possessions for (she's married to a rich bureaucrat or something); he lacks confidence, money, strength of character, and, as this reviewer has noted, artistic talent. He whines and mopes while she swoons and gushes. Margarita makes a deal with the Devil, Woland, to host his silly party, detailed in a chapter containing numerous surreal passages of surprisingly dull prose: "On the stage behind the tulips, where the waltz king's orchestra had been playing, there now raged an ape jazz band. A huge gorilla with shaggy side-whiskers, a trumpet in his hand, capering heavily, was doing the conducting. Orangutans sat in a row blowing on shiny trumpets."

What a shindig. The Devil and his entourage have all the choice lines, the style, and the chutzpah, while the Muscovites, from the artists to the authorities to the peasants, are generally fearful, acquisitive, and bereft of imagination. Whether this was a sort of criticism on Soviet society I don't know, but in glorifying the Devil, Bulgakov isn't so much worshipping as suggesting evil isn't as one-dimensional as it's made out to be: "What would your good do if evil didn't exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people." This is an interesting idea for the 1930s considering that the Stalin government was murdering dissenters daily and Hitler was assembling his wartime apparatus.  Bulgakov reportedly burned his manuscript  at least once (like the Master in the novel). He died in 1940 and the novel wasn't published until 1966. But had he lived longer to witness in the papers Auschwitz and Hiroshima, would he have maintained a sympathetic feeling for the Devil? In modern times, evil had never been so one-dimensionally obvious as it was during the Second World War.


Monocled Mikhail Bulgakov

But maybe I'm missing Bulgakov's point. After all, there is still so much of the novel I couldn't really make sense of. That would be OK if for not one glaring failure. I can accept a meandering, puzzling, complicated storyline loaded with symbolism that I might not fully grasp (I'm comparatively under-read in Russian literature and history), but nearly 600 pages of mediocre prose does not make for sustainable pleasure in reading. There are moments of exquisite, absurd, humorously rendered evil when Woland and his cronies are harassing Moscow's literati, but most of the novel, especially the story of the title characters and the Jerusalem crucifixion is a slog to get through. Often, the prose is so torturously bad that reading becomes endurance rather than indulgence.  I began losing interest in the book, thinking of only of getting to the end. This is a translation, of course (a very popular edition by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky from Penguin Classics), so I cannot say for sure whether Bulgakov is good or bad as a prose stylist (I'm willing to grant him a vivid imagination). Lacking evidence, I suspect the translators. No doubt, there is a real conundrum for word handlers: how to faithfully reproduce the exact author's intentions, without aesthetically altering the text seems a formidable task. But perhaps prose should be altered more, or at least delicately edited by a poet. Not to take anything from translators, who are enormously talented in their bilingualism, but few of them are genuine writing talents, which is something altogether different from understanding how a sentence sounds in two languages. Choosing the right words, the most precise, naturalistic, fluent prose is a devilish task. Bulgakov's demonic Woland, while a mischievous cretin, is charming enough to  deserve a better English stylist than the ones he had in this edition.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Post-Structual Retro Victorianism

"There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel."
-- Trollope



Bibliophiles have this thing, not dissimilar to audiophiles or cinephiles, in which we tend to zoom in on a person's bookcase in order to gauge the compatibility of our aesthetic sensibilities. Jeffrey Eugenides' novel, The Marriage Plot, in fact opens with a close perusal of the heroine's shelves. There we find Edith Wharton, Henry James, Dickens, Trollope, Austen, George Eliot, the Bronte sisters, a collection described as "Incurably Romantic." The heroine, Madeleine Hanna, and I would not be the most compatible bibliophiles. Having studied something other than English at university, I managed to bypass most of these authors and their air of "required reading." I might have found her too academic or blinded by old-fashioned prejudice; she would read my variety of literary interests as chaotic, or that of a dilettante. Nevertheless, after a round of drinks we'd probably discover we are both unrepentant snobs, ruing the decline of American reading standards. I might not have gotten around to George Eliot or Henry James, but know I should.

Jeffrey Eugenides

Truth told, I probably would have fallen for Madeleine too if I had been a liberal arts major at Brown in the early 1980s when the story is situated. She's romantic to a fault, literate, forgiving, generous, attentive, and witty. So I was thus surprised when I checked out the reviews on goodreads to see so many one-star reviews with plenty of nasty commentary, mostly condemning the character of Madeline as a "spoiled brat," as something "pretentious" and "loathsome." Personally, I rather liked her and the book as well. It made me nostalgic for university life, for a time when I was a young man,  young love, and the hyper-personal quest of selfhood.

Perhaps readers were expecting something more special after the wonderful strangeness of Eugenides' first two novels, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. The Marriage Plot invokes the specters of Roland Barthes, Jaques Derrida, and other maddening post-structuralists, but as foreshadowed by Madeline's bookshelves, this is old-fashioned storytelling. It's Eugenides' homage to the Victorians, as the plot deals with love, marriage, class, and, poignantly, madness.  Madeline is the pivotal point of a love triangle between two suitors, Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus, the former a hyper-intelligent manic-depressive, the latter, a shy, introverted ascetic with a spiritual keenness to understand God. 

The novel begins on the day of graduation. Madeleine is hungover, she's had some regretful relations with a classmate, her parents are in town, and she has just learned that her ex-boyfriend, Leonard, has been recently institutionalized for a nervous breakdown. Relationships are rarely on equal terms-- one usually loves or needs more than the other, and the balance of power, once Leonard's, shifts to Madeleine once they move in together when Leonard takes a fellowship in Cape Cod. Meanwhile, Mitchell has suffered an unrequited crush on Madeleine throughout university. A religious studies major from a humble Greek family in Michigan, he tries his best to put Madeleine out of his mind by traveling to Europe, and later, India, where he volunteers at Mother Teresa's hospice, desperate to make sense of a spiritual path, vainly hoping it might intersect at a romantic one. College life, European travel, and young adult anxiety are all explored in depth. However, the reader's interest in The Marriage Plot hinges most on who gets the girl.

Sounds terrifically old-fashioned storytelling, right? But in a twist of the sexist Victorian conceit, it is Madeleine who is most stable, mentally and financially, while the men flounder in poverty, odd jobs, and uncertain futures. This is 1982, post-feminism, post ERA, post Roe vs. Wade, and it is the men who stand to gain stability and respect in marriage, not Madeleine. There is a marriage in The Marriage Plot (the book's title refers to Madeleine's thesis paper), but I'm not one for spoilers. And if I were to tell you that Mitchell seems to closely resemble the author and his own experiences as a young man, I still have told you nothing. 

I can be partial to old-fashioned themes, and there is nothing more classic to a novel than love and marriage. However the narrative is a bit complex, as Eugenides breaks the book into sections of close third person, where we read scenes over, but from the other major viewpoint. For me the enjoyment in the book was not so much the plot, nor its resolution (which for the record I did like), but in how spot-on (and agreeable) Eugenides details were. Perhaps Eugenides has read more post-structuralism than myself (I am not a fan) so he might be more receptive to its ideas, but not here: "Reading a novel after reading semiotic theory was like jogging empty-handed after jogging with hand weights." The most ghastly moment in the novel involves Roland Barthes. When Madeleine declares her love for Leonard the first time his response is to point out this passage in Madeleine's well-thumbed copy of the famed post-modernist's Lover's Discourse: "The figure refers not to the declaration of love, to the avowal, but to the repeated utterance of the love cry. Once the first avowal has been made, 'I love you' has no meaning whatever..." Madeleine responds by throwing the book at him.

Roland Barthes

Madeleine had met Leonard in a senior course on semiotics. Perhaps she was drawn by the bibliophile's natural curiosity:  "Semiotics was the first thing that smacked of revolution. It drew a line, it created an elect; it was sophisticated and Continental; it dealt with provocative subjects, with torture, sadism, hermaphroditism-- with sex and power." That doesn't leave much room for the heart. And for that reason, guys like Barthes and Derrida don't make the shelves on Madeleine's shrine of a bookcase.