Category Archives: writers

NOLA zoetrope

The last time I was in NOLA – way before Katrina – I dismissed the city as a theme park. This time, I’m not here as a tourist. I’m in a real neighborhood at a residency established by the people responsible for the first Free Tibet concerts back in 1995, in a little house behind their own.

This is the Bywater, formerly the Upper Ninth Ward. It runs along the river bordered by the French Quarter and Treme. I stand in front of the levee looking up – I am beneath the river! Enormous freighters with names written in foreign alphabets crawl back and forth along the Mississippi. I climb the the steep rusty bridge over the freight train tracks and the levee and come back down to a pretty green walking trail called Crescent Park. The day is gowing hot. People wearing spandex ride fast bikes toward the French Quarter while others, heads down texting, are walking their dogs. Dogs are everywhere and they are lucky dogs because New Orleans has hundreds of dog parks made out of empty lots when the river broke the levees, buildings collapsed and eventually the rubble was taken away.

I ran into one dog today, in a voodoo supply store, a fat hairy dog riveted by something on a top shelf.

NOLA is a bowl in a swamp, where it seems the apocalypse has already happened. The survivors are in various stages of getting over it, standing up and falling down, like a Laurie Anderson song. It is a port – freight trains run along the commuter lines. it is commerce and joy, voodoo and nunneries, community and desolation. People on the street smile, they nod, they say,”how’s your day goin'” and sometimes they stop to tell you how their day is going. The clothes! Prints on stripes, dresses over shorts – this is a city that loves its skin. Po-boys are delicious, gumbo not so much, hipster cafes painted shades of orange behind shutters next to drink dives and one-stops, BMW’s with Jersey plates drive behind construction trucks and Havana Chevys and then there’s the Bark Market that sells pet supplies on one side and art supplies on the other. And the Death, Pharmacy and Chicken museums. An Improv theater in the Healing Center along with the food co-op and trance making supplies.

On my (white) side of St. Claude, soft bellied bearded men sit in cafes eating cake and reading novels, while on the other side an emaciated Haitian rides a stolen bike around in circles. The Quarter is a 20 minute walk away, as is Treme, as is downtown. It is a city of writers. Walter Percy lives on, his old writer’s group still meeting every Friday at a certain bar.

One wonders, where do the people who get pushed out go?  Houston?  Katrina didn’t do them in, they say, it was the government building substandard  levees and infrastructure, the broken pumps; it was America that almost killed them. NOLA, they explain, nodding wisely, is a blue dot in a red state.   

The cats, however stayed and multiplied.  You see them everywhere, in the stores, on stages, grooming their tails in art galleries, hunkered down on stoops, sneaking out of alleys. Always single, They patrol grocery stores, pose on cafe counters and have serious expressions. On every other porch there is a plate of half eaten food. They don’t need water because, as I said, NOLA is a bowl in a swamp.

My computer pings. It’s a weather alert but not for me: a blizzard is sweeping West to East across Northern Vermont.

Fiction wins

I’m deeply involved in a writers community in my city. It’s a Meetup group that has maybe 200 active members. When the founder disappeared (who knows the real story behind this), they (who are they?) formed a 501C3 that required a Board, so that was formed, and after their terms ran out, a second Board came forth but a year later almost all of them quit in a huff without telling anyone why, without a transition plan. Then a transitional team tried to form, but they too quit (what is it with quitting boards?) and now there is an emergency community meeting because we have to pay the rent.

This has been going on for months, and now half of us who used to be copasetic in community don’t speak to the other half: being writers, we started sending each other overly long, acrimonious, analytical and philosophical emails and neglected our own novels.

I unapologetically fled. I was able to get out of town to a residency where I determined to convince my novel to forgive me.

I’m thinking of something that happened to a famous writer whose name I’ve forgotten. She tells the story of having thought of writing a novel about – I’m quoting from Amazon here – “a researcher (female) who sets off into the Amazon jungle to find the remains and effects of a colleague who recently died under mysterious circumstances.” But she never wrote it, and in due time her idea went away and settled in the brain of another writer, Anne Patchett, who actually wrote that story, which she titled “State of Wonder”. These writers met and kissed.or

This story of course sounds too good to be true, but even if it isn’t, there’s a lesson behind it, which is more or less that there are only so many ideas floating around the universe and if you don’t write your novel, someone else will.

Clueless Murakami

Before starting Murakami’s huge (970 pages, good lord) new novel Killing Comentadore, I read Men Without Women, a slight book of short stories told to the narrator Murakami by men, some of whom are friends, others acquaintances, all of whom are currently living without women.  Some of them care, some of them don’t, and some are suicidal or dead, but what they have in common is that they are more or less clueless about the women who have vanished from their lives. The Murakami girl is either a superhero (1Q84) or she disappears never to be seen again.

Taeko Kono is one of them. And she’s nasty:

Moby Dick and Me

Kavanaugh won. The deficit rose 17 percent. Mitch McConnell says he’s concerned, but no problem, we’ll just pay for it by cutting entitlements.

I’m reading Moby Dick.

In high school,  I read to where QQ squatted in a cold fireplace with a wooden doll on his head, causing Ishmael, watching from their shared bed – now there’s a story untod –

to conclude that no religion was more interesting than any other because all was chaos and “it is better to sleep with a cannibal than a drunken Christian.” I agreed with both conclusions and brought the book straight back to the library. Reading Moby Dick was not then cool.

Forty years later, I picked it up on the night of September 11th. This time, I read all the way to the end. Savoring the metaphors, instructions, alliterations, the mood swings.  The book obsessed me. Ahab was the fury sacrificing the ship for revenge in swirling metaphors. The imagery was so potent, so contemporary, so driven that I spent the next three years painting them.

My images were of submerged cities where inhabitants sat in restaurants  eating at tables while whales watched through broken glass. I have to say no book has inspired me like this since. September 11th 2001 was insane, and so far an anomaly, except for Donald Trump who could be the Ahab of our century.

This time around it occurs to me that Ahab is, in some infernal way, as much  the hero of the book as is the whale:

He asks Starbuck, “how can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?” and answers rhetorically, “To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white wale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun it it insulted me.”

This statement is appalling and yet it is profound. While Ishmael is content to explore without malice a ride on whatever spiritual vehicle he encounters, Ahab is the personification of defiant despair beyond comfort. The whale is his personal personification of evil, to kill the whale is to purify humanity from radical evil. If there be an evil God, then the way to freedom from that evil is to “thrust through the wall” that is the white whale.  So his obsession is not only for revenge, but also to learn for himself if God be evil, even if he fails and learns nothing.

And he knows he cannot succeed alone. Like any totalitarian power obsessive, he is precise, and he accomplishes his goals with various strategies, i.e. winning over Starbuck’s “soul and mind” – that is, subjecting the ego to a mob  obsession, gathering a military and prophet (Fedullah and friends), pretending his motive is mere capitalism,  giving his men heroic significance in his campaign to purify the world of evil. And in moments of rage and sniffle, he demonizes the entire wet world…”Panting and snorting like a mad battlesteed that has lost its rider, the masterless ocean overruns the globe” and anoints himself and his ship as the vehicle worthy of plunging into this chaos.

What a line.

.

This is, of course, the argument of totalitarianism,  in the mid 19th Century as Europe headed towards reactionary nationalism that would explode decades later,  and is resonant today as our world slips ever deeper and deeper under the weight of kleptocratic oligarchies.

 

 

 

Rachel Cusk et al vs Don Quixote

After coming to the end of the delicious, rapturous, repetitive, raving, magnificent most-engaged-knight-in-the-entire-world Don Quixote, I’ve become obsessed with Rachel Cusk’s trilogy; Outline, Transit and Kudos. She’s the anti-Cervantes, the “dissociate artist for a dissociate age, asking from the back seat; ‘is this real life?'” So writes Patricia Lockwood in the London Review. Like so many others, I started off disliking her, and still do, but I read on.

Probably it’s the Voice. It drones seamlessly from one person’s story into the next, commenting when it feels like it, then going on to the next like a distracted, OCD dog. The voice is monotonous, without nuance. At times, it’s indistinguishable from the person it’s supposed to be conversing with. You get the sense that the Voice listens, but that it can only respond to what mirrors itself in the teller’s stories. When the Other Voice, the one telling a story (mostly men strutting their stuff) stops for breath, the Cusk Voice comes out like the cuckoo in the clock, presents its rebuttal, or its insight, which are at times so embedded with “it seems to me” and “in a kind of way” and “perhaps” as to be unfathomable, pretentious, as if ones point of view is the only proper response to a story being told by someone else.

Lorrie Moore says this: “We see that we are experiencing a presentation: a midair collusion of storytellers and pronouncers. Faye’s voice and those of the characters she encounters sometimes merge—and that is the point. However underperforming our lives may be, the stories of them are always performances. Faye makes statements that seem to announce the book’s narrative strategy: “I was beginning to see my own fears and desires manifested outside myself, was beginning to see in other people’s lives a commentary on my own.”

The Voice is hypnotic. I’m mesmerized. Cusk is traveling, and her fellow travelers are as mundane as mine are.

I’m also reading Sigrid Nunoz, The Friend, Houellebecq’s Submission and I’m paging through Karl Ove to see if it’s possible to  commit to The Struggle, which I’ve been saving for when I’m convalescing from flu. Strangely, I find no pleasure reading these authors. With some exceptions, mostly their sentences ring pithy as hammers banging through rock, stripped of imagery, lacking sensuality, self-involved with their own drama. And yet, and yet – they are driven, relentless, trance inducing.

I came to Cusk late because along with Sheila Hati and Claudia Day  (whose recent article in the Paris Review begins with “I wrote the first draft of my novel Heartbreaker in a ten-day mania in August 2015” – I’m supposed to want to read this?) she was part of the New Motherhood, what it means, what price you pay, how to write a novel with children hanging from your clothing sucking your blood. I admit that the topic doesn’t interest me, I simply don’t care;  the topic brings out the worst in me, the me that says, Yes, giving birth is a big deal, yes domesticity is the death of freedom, yes, it is the birthing of the death of another and yes, it’s also a big deal to write a novel while a mother. Yes yes yes, there are consequences for everything, get over it, find something else to write about.  Aside from Patty Smith and Keith Richards, who have a ball writing about their =interesting, demonic lives, I can’t think of a memoir worth writing.

What it boils down for me to is this: Everything in life is someone’s drama, and eventually, unless it is transformed into language, paint, color, rhythm, movement, conversation; story; into beauty, it feels like just one more voice  grinding away in the background with the clothes dryer.

Which, if you’re DeLilio, or Robert Altman and maybe Rachel – well, drone on.

What I really wish for today

I’m not a mean person. I don’t wish misery, but this morning, after a night of terrible dreams searching for ways out of crumbling places, after reading this mornings news – The Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post, NY Mag, The Atlantic/Republic/Vanity Fair, after following David Frum on Twitter, listening to his interview on National Public Radio, following the Lit Hub link to Rebecca Solnik.  I wished Donald Trump off the face of the planet in the most humiliating way possible.

Yes. Let it be broadcast on CNN.

I’m reading Symphony for the City of the Dead: Shostakovich in Leningrad.  The city was brought to its knees by its own leader, clearing the path for the German army to finish it off, to break its neck and snuff its soul. I used to think of Trump as Hitler, but that was selling Hitler short, for wasn’t Hitler the genius manipulating Stalin to purge his military and weaken the people? Which Stalin proceeded to accomplish, out of his narcissism, his flaming death love, his cultural stupidity, his lack of curiosity, his arrested development – thereby weakening his people and his army? Is this not stupidity? Trump,we have just been told, is not stupid, for he has correctly identified a picture as that of a camel; he can draw a cube and a clock face set to a particular time. Wow. I bet Stalin would have done well, too.

But is Trump dangerous? America in 2018 is not Russia before WW2. We have never been oppressed under Tsars; we have always been the oppressors. The government hasn’t starved out the opposition, vanished millions of people, executed by decree, commanded  people switch professions, ghettoize entire communities, forced confessions, closed off the borders, made the press the enemy of the people. Except for Native Americans, African Americans, Jews and Italians under former immigration quotas, women. Muslims, Mexicans, and children (by ruining the public school system.)

Dogs however are doing well, although we have to be watchful as Trump doesn’t seem to like them.

Witness the packing of the courts, the erasure of the opposition, the equation of truth with fake news, gerrymandering districts, voter restrictions, demonizing minorities, encouraging the far right, erasing regulations, stripping health care, denying science, ruining our coasts, denying aid for the poor…But our people aren’t passive. We have Our Revolution, the ACLU, Indivisible. We have mayors and corporations taking the place of our country at the Paris Accord.  We have Barack Obama, bless him forever, in the best of shape.

Meanwhile, Trump, get out of my life.