Quote of the day: on writing

“Understood: language would end up falsifying everything, as language always does. Writers know this only too well, they know it better than anyone else, and that is why the good ones sweat and bleed over their sentences, the best ones break themselves into pieces over their sentences, because if there is any truth to be found they believe it will be found there. Those writers who believe that the way they write is more important than whatever they may write about — these are the only writers I want to read anymore, the only ones who can lift me up.” 

from “What Are You Going Through,” the brilliant brand-new novel by Sigrid Nunez

Random stuff, summer edition

I’m always jazzed when I discover a great new writer — or at least new to me — and that’s the case with American pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman. I’m not sure why, but I’ve avoided his work for a full decade (jealousy?). Then I recently read a description of one his anthologies that snared my interest. (It was surely the fact that KISS and Metallica were two of his topics.) Growing up a metalhead in the Midwest in the ‘80s, Klosterman was weaned on the likes of Guns N’ Roses, Cinderella, Mötley Crüe, and KISS (still his favorite band, which I find outstanding). He declares KISS “the second-most influential rock band of all time,” after the Beatles. Chew on that. 

Today he writes with breathtaking omnivorousness about culture at large, from TV to Chicken McNuggets. (He also writes a lot about sports. I skip all that.) He pens novels, memoirs and big thinky pieces. He’s breezy, never ponderous or pretentious — he’s pretty much anti-pretentious — penetrating, smart as hell and equally as funny. This summer I’ve read his collections “IV” and “X.” I’m now on the memoir of his early hair-metal fandom, “Fargo Rock City.” The book is about much more than his little life worshipping bands like Poison. It’s expansive, ecstatic, packed with big ideas and witty perceptions. With Klosterman, it always is. 

I slipped in a sweaty drum session last night, pounded away for about 30 minutes to an array of vintage rock, most of which would make you blush. I performed pretty well, but not A-plus. I was thinking too much. When I think about what I’m playing, about what move I’m going to make next, I throw myself off and lose the beat. Same goes when I think about life things while I play — it derails the groove and mistakes are made, sticks are dropped. As a metal madman once screeched, “C’mon feel the noise!” Meaning, don’t think it.

It’s been years since I watched the 1996 cult comedy “Waiting for Guffman,” the Christopher Guest mockumentary that, with sardonic sweetness, lampoons community theater culture and the talentless goofs who inhabit it. On a whim, I rewatched it. I cringed at what I once adored. Gags are broad, the jokes are fizzless, the parody punchless. It feels facile and off-key. That said, my love for Guest, Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara remains undying. (Forget “Schitt’s Creek.” I’ll take classic “SCTV” any day.)

I got my first haircut in more than four months the other day. (A new national holiday should be declared.) It was a new place, a new barber, a guy I quickly cottoned to. We gabbed almost entirely about world travel — Turkey, Morocco, Japan, India and, natch, Paris, since that’s where I’m booked to go in October. I expressed my concern that even in the fall the world won’t be ready for regular tourist travel. He demurred. His prediction, stated with blithe confidence: All this pandemic mess will be done with in — get this — six weeks. September, he averred, and things will be back to normal, and I will easily get to fly to an all-open Paris. Maybe he was just making me feel better. Maybe he doesn’t read the papers. Maybe he’s been huffing the Aqua Net.   

I’ve rediscovered the kaleidoscopically inspired Cartoon Network show “Adventure Time,” whose title doesn’t begin to convey what’s in store for the kiddies (and rabid adults) who tune in. I can’t either. Squirting diarrhea, rainbow unicorns, a talking piñata, a verbal, shape-shifting dog and so much stuff that qualifies as unapologetically batshit that I can’t possibly smoosh it into this space. Now airing on HBO Max, each 11-minute episode — any longer and your eyes might bleed — is a heady, unhinged phantasmagoria of the surreal, psychedelic and wildly non sequitur. It’s also positive, uproarious, sad, thoughtful and weirdly timely. And it’s a damn cartoon.

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Quote of the day

To hell with happiness. More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. Those made you forget. They made happiness a pink marshmallow.”

 — “In a Lonely Place,” the classic noir novel by Dorothy B. Hughes

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Homebound, book-bound

The neighbors down the street have acquired a tiny spotted piglet and that means nothing, because that’s not what I’m here for. Just thought I’d mention it as a friendly neighborhood bulletin, despite its thoroughgoing irrelevance to anything on this page.

I’m here to talk books — books I’m gathering around me like a collective paper blanket during the sheltering in place (my least favorite term for the eternal quarantine). I have mentioned I’m ordering new and used books hungrily, and now the stacks are rising precariously. Somebody stop me. 

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Over time I’ve read three or four novels and story collections by the daring, queasily beguiling Ottessa Moshfegh, whose darkly defiant streak, which runs from addiction to murder, poop to pathologies, has never been as palpable as in her 2016 debut “Eileen.” I just gobbled up the slim novel and I’m savoring its bitter aftertaste. I wanted to be ready for Moshfegh’s much-anticipated novel “Death in Her Hands,” coming out in two weeks. Hardly a spoiler: It’s being called perverse and strange. Bring it on.  

In a snap of energetic laziness, I skipped the first two books in Elena Ferrante’s universally lauded series The Neapolitan Novels, which kicks off with “My Brilliant Friend,” opting instead to watch the first two parts in the epic HBO adaptations (luminous, devastating). Now I’m into the third book, “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” and it makes me anxious: How much lush, moving prose did I miss by not reading the first two books? Yet another literary project materializes. 519LmMYfn-L._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_There’s a handful of hip, youngish, mostly male writers I avoid because of both their grating public images and callow, look-at-me writing (see ya, Dave Eggers). Journalist Chuck Klosterman, who specializes in rock and pop culture at large, has always made my belly twist at the teensy bit of his I’ve read in the likes of Spin magazine. He’s published loads of essay collections, like “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs” and “Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas,” the latter of which I swallowed hard and purchased. Surprise — it’s damn good. With a mix of irreverence and shaggy erudition, humor and a swingingly unadorned style, the author asserts a penetrating, smarter-than-his-subjects but not condescending attitude on everyone from Britney Spears and Radiohead to Metallica and Robert Plant. A pop culture polymath, a smart-aleck with a laser-pointed pen, Klosterman is good company.

41N3Bj9x7IL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Also a delight are the words of the late David Carr, the New York Times media columnist who in 2015 dropped dead in the Times newsroom, a fact that might have tickled the celebrated super-journalist. “Final Draft,” a new collection of his writing from the past 25 years, reveals a passionate pro and consummate stylist at his best. We get reportage and ruminations on racism, personal addiction, media blowhards, personalities and the often checkered texture of journalism itself. Carr was a star. This book shows why. Unknown And now, the pig:

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High school highs, and lows

High school was hell, but Eve Babitz makes me envious of those four ego-scarring years with her descriptions of life on campus at prestigious performing arts school Hollywood High, which is famed as much for its glitzy alumni as for its cameos in films like, uh, Jon Favreau’s “Made.” (Anyone?)

Babitz mentions her days/daze at Hollywood High School in “I Used to Be Charming,” a plump collection of essays and magazine articles by the cool, acerbic chronicler of LA’s kaleidoscopic contours which I happen to be reading. It’s the early 1960s and she “used to watch them, those guys in their maroon and white sweaters at Hollywood High, their handsome faces and their invincibility and the way they smiled and said Hi.”

Right, that sounds like many a teenage girl mooning over the jock block. But Hollywood High is different, a sort of Harvard of the arts, a Juilliard transplanted to the sunny, mountain-fringed SoCal coast. It’s where the likes of Judy Garland, Cher, Laurence Fishburne, Carol Burnett, Selena, Bruce Lee, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lana Turner, John Huston and a wad of other luminaries graduated from. 

For mere mortals, it makes you think: Well, crap.

My California high school was a miasma of mediocrity: Clorox-white, suburban, middle-class, filled with dullards and philistines and animated by cliquey teen clichés — jocks, stoners, nerds, punks, cheerleaders, et al. “The Breakfast Club” writ eye-rollingly real. 

This callow pimple-verse was of course dominated by the chest-thumping jocks, those entitled, vainglorious meatheads, who actually believed they were special and that anyone but them gave one goddam about a Friday night football game. In four years, I attended one pep rally. I’ve never been so mortified in my life.

I can’t imagine the boho Babitz — artist, writer, rock- and art-scene groupie — stooping to the synthetic glee of a pep rally. But who knows. She was a wild one, slurping up life’s rich cocktail, no matter how corny or queasy. Her eyes were wide open, and rimmed with an agreeable cynicism that gave her writing a feral pop.

51qpHkS8hyLThe trope goes that high school is misery for anyone who’s even partially cognizant. It’s political, hierarchical, mean, rife with crappy beer, unshackled lust and timorous gropes. It leaves burn marks.

Not so for Babitz. Beautiful and busty — “When I was fifteen years old, I bought and filled my first 36DD bra,” she writes — and talented to boot, Babitz cultivated hot style with her precocious female cronies, described as “preternatural high schoolers,” which groomed her for a young adulthood of exotic artsy adventures, including a famous dalliance with Jim Morrison. 

One observer writes:

“It’s very likely Eve Babitz’s high school experience bore little resemblance to her readers’, then or now. A graduate of Hollywood High, the LA-based writer and artist moved in a circle of young women who enjoyed the company of older men. They smoked with abandon, casually popped pills, made out with the boyfriends of famous actresses, and occasionally made it to class. Many of Babitz’s peers were achingly beautiful; more than a few became famous because of it.”

I had more fun in high school than I let on — a dash of Babitz’s decadence and a lot of standard teen tomfoolery, as well as the predictable sturm und drang (angst for the memories) and a streak of bleeding heartache. 

Despite my tight quartet of high school friends being creative, thoughtful and music-obsessed, we were no Algonquin Round Table, nothing as chic, daring and ambitious as Babitz’s band of pretty bright things. 

We felt we were treading water in a sea of douchebaggery, believing, as deluded teens will, that we had an edge on most of our classmates, that someday our low-key cool would be appreciated. We were most assuredly wrong. 

So, these many years later, I pine for richer high school days, ones more artistically rarefied and socially sophisticated; grittier, glammier, sexier and slambangier. Pathetic? So be it. If I’m viewing it all through a gauze of romanticism, turning the rearview mirror into a funhouse mirror, I blame Babitz, that bard of badassness, queen of cool and cynosure of sex appeal.

If only.

Typing instead of griping

The natty new baseball cap I ordered from The New York Times arrived the other day, and it’s a solid accessory/hair-hider. Though gaspingly overpriced, the black cap embossed with a gothic Times logo is as plush as a teddy bear and slips on with snuggly élan. (Now where’s the New Yorker tote promised with my subscription? Does anybody actually use totes?) 

The cap came speedily, an anomalous on-time arrival. The mail’s a mess. Of seven books I’ve ordered, three have gotten lost in transit and the rest have taken up to a month to come. I’ve received four refunds. The pandemic’s to blame, and The New Yorker was civil enough to apologize for the tote delay, citing the crisis. (I so don’t need a tote.)

The crisis. Damn. We’re whipped and we never had a fighting chance. Stuffed indoors, grounded from going out to play, we are occasionally embalmed in boredom. But there are things to be done. Typing beats griping. Thumb wrestling: a reliable time-passer.

This whole topic is as tired as we are, a cliché looking for a new angle, a brand-new nag. What am I going to do, write about the dog again? Regale you with what I ate for lunch? Chat about the movies I’ve been watching? 

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    The Marx Brothers: comic chaos

Done. I’ve rewatched some Marx Brothers, riotous rapscallions of Dada-esque anarchy, and the peerless noir “The Big Sleep,” in which Bogart’s smooth, smoke-wreathed private eye falls dangerously hard for the dangerously young Lauren Bacall while on a gnarled murder case. Howard Hawks crisply directs William Faulkner’s script, which is based on Raymond Chandler’s pungent detective classic. The movie sits in my personal pantheon of bests. Likewise the Marx Brothers masterpiece “Duck Soup.” (Speaking of soup, that’s what I ate for lunch.)

Outside, children shriek and gambol — my shriek and gambol days ended at 35 — their exuberant simian antics echoing through the streets and the trees and surely breaking social distancing guidelines. So what! They’re young and invincible! Barring them indoors is like corking a volcano. It’s gonna blow.

Children are not my tribe. I have none, and I’m grateful for that. I do not feel bereft in the least. Parents do not arouse envy in me. (In fact, I consider it this way: bullet dodged.) My nephews are terrific and as close to parenthood as I ever want to get. The only creature that calls me Poppa is the dog, which affirms twin beliefs that I’m part canine and he is made of magic.

After reading and a walk, it’s back to the keyboard, one of my few comfort zones. Warmth is not a comfort zone. Temperatures are rising, summer’s rottenness creeping in. People love this stuff — heat, sweat, sun — another popular phenomenon I spurn, like dinner parties, reggae and the American version of “The Office.” (I’m typing and griping.)

Which means summer hibernation will come naturally. I love A/C, loathe UV. But really, will there even be a summer, or will it just be streaming? Will people sit in wide, loose circles on patios, sliding down face masks to sip rosé and eat guac? The annual September block party — will that too be nixed? Maybe not. Eighty households can Zoom together at once, right? Surely. Hot dogs and deviled eggs, those are your responsibility.

Finding form in shapeless times

Following an acute infection diagnosed on Easter, my appendix is just super. A regimen of antibiotics, a pill as chunky as a grave adult multi-vitamin, has snuffed the appendicitis, vaporized the pain and eased worries. But not all worries. No, of course not.

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The surgeon who’s my supervising physician cheered my improvement but cautioned that the infection could return in three weeks, three months, a year, who knows. He’s suggested preventative surgery relatively soon to snip out that hateful organ. 

Such dreamy thoughts for the quarantine — just what I or anybody needs right now. Boy, when this all blows over, I get to have belly surgery! 

Surgery sucks and so does house arrest, but distractions are plenty. Sort of. Not really. I toggle between reading and writing and watching the occasional movie (“Little Women,” “The Lighthouse,” “La Collectionneuse”). I spit words into my journal, take a brisk walk, shop for books online, practice my French (lie!), donate money to animal causes and ponder the meaning of life, this stuffy, neutered, unmoored version of it. 

Chat with friends on FaceTime, you say. I don’t do FaceTime, yet I had to with my doctor a few times to discuss my ailment — his idea. It was my first time, my iPhone deflowering, if you will, and I cannot say I wasn’t mortified. It went swell. 

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The appendix episode has lightly anchored this adrift vessel for now, furnished a focus, given me something to gnaw on, something to be more anguished about.

My journal jots reflect some of the days’ monotony, some of the dread of what’s out there (COVID-19, a maniacal leader) and what’s inside me: “I’m cured. I am not cured. This thing, I fear, will return like a cancer,” I wrote yesterday about my pesky malady. I muse about the pets with withering boredom: “The gray cat’s eyes weep and glisten with viscous slop that congeals into a tar-like goop.” And I note time’s quarantine creak: “Grinding forth, the day leaves skid marks.” One entry reads simply: “Blech.”

Chalky-gray is the new black. Specificity has fled. Vagueness as an existential condition is unsettling. Stasis lurks. We waft, not run. Atrophy, hovering near, sees its chance.

Where are we headed? That’s the burning question, one I’m not sure I want answered.

The smart, tart prose of Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore astonishes, still, her writing shiny, poetic and brainy, the best kind of literature. It’s massively, richly human, striking each note, from humor to horror and all in between. She’s a blistering deterrent for ever trying to commit fiction. If I can’t be that good, I don’t want to be anything — that’s my thinking. My stabs at fiction have been leaden, lame, laughable. 

I am re-reading Moore’s acclaimed story collection “Birds of America.” On its release in 1998, a writer friend and I were both reading the book, and I told him that her writing made me jealous, defeated. “Oh, not me,” he said. “It inspires me.” (That from the guy who was a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist in his early 20s.) 

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Today Moore’s ecstatic prose inspires me, too, provides oomph, a kick to my motivational motor, spurring me to tap the keys and say something, anything. That can be dangerous. If it’s any good, most writing is. (I know — that’s axiomatic.) 

What I mean is, I can write stuff so sloppy, witless and rancid that it’s actually toxic — it wounds and discourages. Then I can pick up a book by Moore or her peers (say, Alice Munro or Tobias Wolff) and be pacified by sheer beauty and slashing craft and get revved again at the possibilities — the old can of spinach. 

Moore’s written four story collections: “Self-Help,” “Birds of America,” “Bark” and the brand-new anthology “Collected Stories” from the prestigious Everyman’s Library Contemporary Classics. And three novels: “Anagrams,” “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” and “A Gate at the Stairs.”

I read the latter and liked it, but I don’t remember much about it. “Birds of America” is different. It’s stickier, droller, more dynamic, more prismatic. It’s spiky, empathic, bright and cynical. Though she’s no maximalist, less isn’t Moore: Her words contain worlds. (And her titles are often titillations: “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People”; “People Like That Are the Only People Here.”)

I forgot to mention the stories are also crackingly funny. Moore’s effortless humor, mostly of a mordant strain, ribbons through the dramas organically. She’s no stand-up comedian like novelist Gary Shteyngart, who’s forced and erratic. With sociological rigor, she locates the dark laughs baked in the everyday.

Lorrie-Moore.jpgShe is particularly good at the jolt-laugh of the unexpected:

“The next time Bill saw her, it was on her birthday, and she’d had three and a half whiskys. She exclaimed loudly about the beauty of the cake, and then, taking a deep breath, she dropped her head too close to the candles and set her hair spectacularly on fire.” 

And she’s bracing when she goes darkly wise:

“This is what he knows right now, with dinner winding up and midnight looming like a death gong: life’s embrace is quick and busy, and everywhere in it people are equally lacking and well-meaning and nuts.”

My next book purchase will be “Bark,” Moore’s 2014 story collection, which I find hard to believe I don’t already own. I’ve put it off, sure that it can’t touch the brilliance of “Birds,” that it’s a disappointment in waiting. But revisiting her masterpiece blots out doubt. How can it be weak or wan? It can’t, I say. It can’t.

Occupational hazards of the novelist

Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows what an arduous task it is, undoubtedly one of the worst ways of occupying oneself. You have to remain within yourself all the time, in solitary confinement. It’s a controlled psychosis, an obsessive paranoia manacled to work completely lacking in the feather pens and bustles and Venetian masks we would ordinarily associate with it, clothed instead in a butcher’s apron and rubber boots, eviscerating knife in hand.”

— Olga Tokarczuk, from her Booker-winning novel “Flights,” a luminous series of human and existential journeys revealed in shards and fragments. A supernova of imagination and intellect.

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The Polish author won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature.

 

One of those grab-bag blogs filled with mad miscellany

— In New Orleans next month, I’m forgoing the vaunted National WWII Museum for the more mischievously skeevy Museum of Death, a labyrinth of the gross and ghoulish and other alliterative G’s (ghastly, grisly … ). Body bags, coffins, car accident photos, Manson family ephemera, cannibalism — and, well, I’m making a poor case for my mental stability. Why not do both museums? Because I’m booked for a cemetery tour (I know, I know), a paddleboat cruise on the Mississippi, a French Quarter tour and a hop through the Dixie Brewery, which is $5 compared to the war museum’s nearly $30 entry, which is twice as much as Museum of Death tickets. And, really, aren’t both museums monuments to mortality in their ways? (Plus, I’ve seen “Saving Private Ryan.” It didn’t go well.)

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— People slap flashy stickers and decals all over their laptops, without realizing the machines are not skateboards and are anything but billboards of hip. A Dell? Fine. A Mac? Plain vandalism.

1hFFNNJHOVyul0OLXpKgpcKM2MOF6S_large— Best movie from the ‘70s I recently re-watched: rattling rock melodrama “The Rose,” starring an atomic Bette Midler, shrill and crazy, on a Criterion DVD. Directed by Mark Rydell, the tipsy tragedy, loosely based on Janis Joplin’s hasty flame-out, was shot by storied cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, with assistance on the feral concert scenes from lens legends Conrad Hall, László Kovács and Haskell Wexler. Toni Basil choreographed Midler’s bestial gyrations. The movie, a buckling downer, holds up rapturously. (Watch it with “A Star is Born.” Discuss.) 

— I saw the trailer for the new Wes Anderson movie, “The French Dispatch.” My eyes bled. My mind sizzled in its teeny brain-pan. Once upon a time, Anderson was one of our most exciting young filmmakers (“Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore.”) He’s now one of our most exasperating. And cloying. And irritating. And incurably cutesy.

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“All gunfighters are lonely. They live in fear. They die without a dime or a woman or a friend.” — Burt Lancaster, philosophizing in 1957’s otherwise poky “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” Sometimes I wonder: Am I a gunfighter?

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— I liked but didn’t love Oscar history-maker “Parasite,” Bong Joon-ho’s catchy Korean comedy-thriller-horror flick. It swept the Academy Awards, becoming the first foreign-language movie to win Best Picture, which I’m all for. But the movie doesn’t explode. It’s not “Crash” or “Green Book” bad, somehow and embarrassingly snatching top honors — not even close. It is, simply, the most overrated movie of 2019. I placed it #8 on my top 10 list. It is very good. And I am so happy it shut-out “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” patently one of the year’s worst films. For those who haven’t seen “Parasite” but have followed its triumphs, I’m afraid some shade of disappointment is possible. 

Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker is one of the sharpest art critics I’ve read, and one of the lushest, most literate prose stylists around. Gifted as he is, he still says things like, “I’ve toiled all my life, in vain, to like myself.” He adds, “Writing is hard, or everyone would do it.” It is humbling.

—  This is the most poignant line I’ve read in a book in some time: “There is a species of moth in Madagascar that drinks the tears of sleeping birds.” It’s from Jenny Offill’s deep and droll new novel “Weather.” I also liked this: “I’m too tired for any of it. The compromise is that we all eat ice cream and watch videos of goats screaming like women.”

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— Winter is fast receding. Son of a bitch.

— I noted above that “Saving Private Ryan” and I had a dubious relationship upon its 1998 release. As a full-time movie critic, I gave the summer blockbuster two stars out of four. I recently located my love letter to the film, part of which reads:

“The World War II epic ‘Saving Private Ryan’ begins with a screen-size image of the American flag. The banner ripples in the breeze with patriotic solemnity, as John Williams’ score puffs its chest and gives a stern salute to our tear ducts.

“Dissolve to a scene of soft-focus Americana plucked from Norman Rockwell, featuring a family borrowed from a life insurance commercial. As this ideal of scrubbed, middle-class solicitude walks quietly toward a white cross in a military cemetery, the screen fairly creaks with labored pathos. You start to wonder if you’re watching a parody of a Steven Spielberg movie.

“Actually, it’s an inadvertent self-parody, for this is a Spielberg movie, his latest and most contrived attempt at serious adult filmmaking. Despite its unflinching (almost desperate) depiction of battlefield carnage, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is marred by mawkish indulgence and counterfeit drama, Spielberg’s twin weaknesses. The man can’t help it: He lards the film with freeze-dried sentiment, tingle-inducing declarations and cello cues. The considerable gore is largely separate from the main story; it’s a bombastic stage setter.”

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Save me, Private Ryan.