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Thursday, March 28, 2013

=2013 Books Read=

Slow Man
by J.M. Coetzee

That Troublesome Costello Woman...

Ah, finished! The book's ending caught me unawares. Though I'd checked several times I'd somehow misremembered the  page count. I thought it was 487 pages long; it was 467. I reread the last paragraph again with my new awareness that it was the last paragragh. Then I shut the book once and for all with a satisfying thunk.

I looked up to stare off meditatively into space as I often do after finishing a book and found myself staring into the bland face of an otherwise nondescript elderly woman. When had she taken a seat at my table? I hadn't noticed her arrival. I didn't think I'd been that absorbed in my reading. Whoever she was, she was smiling at me pleasantly. She nodded towards my book.

"I couldn't help but notice you've finished your book."

"Yes," I said, in a measured tone. In Brooklyn, strangers who sit down at your table uninvited are to be treated carefully. Like potential bombs with tricky wiring.

"That means you'll be looking for something new to read. Can I make a suggestion?"

I had the second half of a chocolate chip bagel before me and a cup of coffee. I wanted nothing more than to get back to it, and to my own private thoughts.

"Sure, why not?"

"J.M. Coetzee. Have you read him?"

"No, can't say I have."

I was familiar with the name, of course. I had the vague notion that he was a South African writer, that he wrote a lot about apartheid, a subject that, though I could understand why people would want to read and write about it, didn't interest me very much. Apartheid was a bad thing, totally reprehensible. I was glad it was over. But reading novels about it...meh.

"Then you must do so immediately. Wonderful writer. Won a Nobel Prize, though that's not why I suggest him. He'd be a wonderful writer regardless."

"He's pretty political, isn't he?" I said, just to be saying something.

"Oh in some novels yes. But not always. You aren't political? Very well. Try Slow Man. That is not a political novel at all. Or, rather, only in the most oblique ways."

"J.M. Coetzee.  Slow Man. Okay. Thanks. Maybe I'll check him out."

"Oh you should. You really should. You must. You'll love him."

I had no intention of checking out J.M. Coetzee or his novel No Man, or whatever the title was. I just wanted to finish my bagel. And my coffee, which was getting colder.


Correction: already cold.


Two days later I was sitting on a park bench looking out at the tankers moving imperceptibly over the river towards Manhattan. On my left was the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. On the path before me joggers, brisk walkers, and the occasional cyclist zipping past, hunched over antlered handlebars. It was one of those early spring days that people want so badly to believe is warmer than it really is. I had in my lap The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, which I'd just borrowed the day before from the Kings Highway Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. I'd just finished a short essay by Annie Dillard about weasels.

"Why hello again," came a voice startlingly close to my right ear that I nearly jumped out of my boots. "Sorry if I startled you."

It was the elderly woman from the bagel shop. I forced myself to take a better look at her this time in case I had to describe her to the police. In the end, though, if it came to that, I would have been at a loss to do better than my first impression. If anything, she was somewhat older than I first estimated. Maybe as old as seventy. On the plump side. Clothes rather out-of-date, as you might expect. Bit of a scattered air. She might have been a retired academic or just a dotty old woman with a valise full of fantasies and dreams.

"I see you have another book."

"Do I know you?"

"We met at the bagel shop."

"Yes, I remember. That's not what I meant."

"No, you don't know me. But I feel that I know you." I didn't ask how. I was convinced now that she was a nut. Probably a harmless nut, but I'd stay on my guard, watchful for the emergence of the knitting needle intended to take out my eye. "My name is Elizabeth Costello."

"I see. Well, it's nice to meet you again, Ms. Costello."


"Yes, Elizabeth."

"I see you've got another book." I looked down guiltily into my lap. "Not the Coetzee, though."

"No," I shrugged. "Not the Coetzee, not yet."

"You really should read the Coetzee I recommended. If you haven't read him before, you're in for a real treat. Slow Man."

I felt a passing irritation that momentarily overshadowed my cautious fear of the strange old woman. "He's lucky to have such a loyal fan pitching his books, this Coetzee."

"Oh I'm more than a fan."

"What then. His editor? His publisher?"

"I'm a fellow writer who appears in his books from time to time. In fact, he's written a whole book about me."

The moment was over, the irritation had completely passed, and the fear reemerged from behind the shadow.

"You might say I'm kind of symbolic of his muse, or his writing self. Hard to say, exactly. It's all rather metafictional, postmodern, for want of a better term. But judging from what I know of your past reading, I don't think you will object to the device."

I wanted to ask what she knew about my past reading and how. Was she a librarian at one of the many Brooklyn Public library branches I visited? I let it pass.

"Not to fear though. In the event that you find me irritating, rest assured that I play only a supporting role in Slow Man. The star of the book is a man named Paul Rayment. He's a lonely man of sixty. Though he wouldn't call himself lonely, at least not at the start of the novel. He's settled in his ways. A bachelor. A recluse. Curmudgeonly. In these regards, he's reputed to be a lot like J.M Coetzee himself. Rayment is a retired portrait photographer, but, as he himself is quick to point out, he was never an artist. He describes himself, somewhat self-disparagingly, as a technician. Married once, no children, which he regrets. As a hobby, he collects vintage photographs as a hobby. His other main passion is riding his bicycle. It's also a passion with Coetzee, this bicycling. One day, out of for a ride, Paul is struck by a car. He saves his head but his leg is destroyed. He wakes up in hospital where he is told they will have to amputate. They amputate. Now he is a man hobbled. A man facing the sunset of his life on one leg. He falls in love with the Croatian nurse who comes to care for him. But she's married, with children of her own. What to do? I know what you're thinking."

"What am I thinking?"

"You're thinking it all sounds pretty predictable. Man loses leg, loses hope, loses will to live. Learns to adapt, learns to love, regains the will to go on."

Now I'm thinking how does she know what I'm thinking? But I guess it wouldn't have been hard to guess.

"It's not what you're thinking, though. Paul does come to these realizations but not in the way you might imagine. He does fall in love, but with a woman who doesn't love him. He acquires children, but not in the usual way. He gets back on a bicycle, but it's not one he will choose to ride. He will go on, still hobbled, still hopeless, if by hope you mean a belief that his dreams will come true. Think Samuel Beckett. His famous lines 'I must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on.' That's Paul Rayment at the end of Slow Man. And I'm in the book, a thorn in his side, a burr under his saddle. I spur him forward. You'll see. When you read it. Tell me you'll read it."

"I'll read it."

"Promise me."

"I promise."


But I didn't read it. I had no intention of reading it and her insistence that I read J.M. Coetzee only cemented my resolve to never read him. I picked up--and in some cases put back down--novels by V.S. Naipul, Patrick McGrath, Jeanette Winterson, and Elizabeth Hardwick. I was willing to read practically anyone, even, god help me, William T. Vollman, anyone but J.M. Coetzee.

That wasn't the end of the story, though. Nor the end of Elizabeth Costello. Over the next two weeks she seemed to pop up everywhere. At the Key Food, she surprised me evaluating cauliflowers in the produce section. At the laundromat she hailed me as I was folding up my intimate apparel. We ran into each other on the sidewalk outside my electrolysist's office. She was standing in line behind me at the post office. She even looked up from a magazine in my doctor's crowded waiting room. The last straw was when I came home one afternoon from a blissful Elizabeth Costello-free walk and found the woman in my apartment.

I lost my temper. My voice rose to something like a sub-shriek. "This is really unacceptable. You've gone too far this time. I'm calling the super."

"Oh it isn't his fault. Please don't be upset, but he's the one who let me in."

I didn't know whether to believe her or not. Could she have broken into my apartment? This bland, bosomy, blowsy old lady? My threat to seek out the super was mostly bluff. I didn't even know in which apartment I could find the super. I always considered it good policy to keep as low a profile as possible where building supers are concerned.

"He let you in?" I said, faking incredulity. How should I know what the man might or might not do.

"Yes, I explained the situation and convinced him it would be okay."

"You explained the situation?" I eyed her coldly. "And what situation would that be?"

She was feeling unwell. She'd been visiting the city on some academic business and that business was now completed. She was just about to return to Melbourne when she met me. Wasn't that fortunate? She knew no one else in the city. She had nowhere else to stay. She'd checked out of the hotel where she'd been and hadn't a reservation for another. Money was a "tad tight" at the moment. Could she stay with me, just until she felt well enough to travel? She promised not to get in my way. Why, I wouldn't even know that she was there. That, in a nutshell, was the "situation." By the way, had I read the Coetzee yet?


Funny, though it seemed the obvious solution, I didn't seriously consider reading J.M. Coetzee's Slow Man. Call me stubborn. I prefer to think of it as standing by my principles. I resist coercion with every fiber of my being. Instead of capitulating to her demands and reading Coetzee, I set my mind to work.

By the end of the month, I had devised a plan for evicting Elizabeth Costello from my apartment and my life.


All along I suspected her of spying on me. How else could she know so much about me? Perhaps she was an identity thief? Had she hacked into my email account? She didn't look any more like a computer
hacker than a break-in artist but who really knew for sure? What does an identity thief look like anyway? She said her name was Elizabeth Costello but that was apparently a character who appeared in a book by J.M. Coetzee. Perhaps she stole this Costello woman's identity...

Wandering down these intellectual halls-of-mirrors would get me nowhere. The fact was I was certain that when I left the apartment the old woman was snooping through my papers, reading my notebooks and diaries, checking out the files on my computer. It would be pointless to accuse her; next to pointless to try to deter her.

So I did the next logical thing. I started writing a story in which a character named Elizabeth Costello appears and left it hidden badly where she would certainly "discover" it.


She met me at the door, shaking the pages in her fist. She moved with considerable speed and threat for a woman of her age, and thickness, her presumed infirmities. "No, no, no, no, no! This is no good. This is completely unacceptable!"

I had set the trap and she had taken taken the bait. I stared at her blankly, innocent-eyed, a newly borrowed volume of short stories by Haruki Murakami under my arm of which she could hardly fail to take notice. I almost feared that with this last touch I had gone too far. She was shaking, apoplectic, verging on the apocalyptic. But I had her on the run and I couldn't let up now.

"Why, whatever are you talking about Ms. Costello?"

"You know very well what I'm talking about. This!" She raised the papers above her head. "This awful gibberish!"

Of course I knew all along what she was talking about. The short story I was writing, or pretending to write, in which she appeared as an antagonist.

"You can't use me like this," she said. You have no right."

"Why not? J.M. Coetzee does."

"That's different."

"Is it really? How so? You're a figment of his imagination and now you're a figment of mine. In fact, you've taken up residence in my apartment. I have a right to make you part of my story. You're part of my life. If you belong to J.M. Coetzee go live with him. Eat up all his Cheez-Doodles."

"No. It doesn't work like that. I'm subject to copyright laws. I'm not in the public domain."

"Ah, but Ms. Costello, I beg to differ. You are indeed in the public domain. You're in the library, the supermarket, the bagel shop, the dentist's office. You're wherever fine books are sold."

"Don't try and confuse the issue with all these post-modern metafictional word games. I'm a tired old woman with a tetchy heart and bad feet. I haven't the time. Are you going to read J.M. Coetzee or not?"

She was still defiant, still adamant. But I could see that she was faltering fast. I felt sorry for her because, yes, on one level, she was, just as she'd said, a tired old woman with a tetchy heart and bad feet. Then again, she would be here long after the rest of us were dead and dust. She was a kind of psychic vampire, living in the imaginations of others. I had to exorcise her from my life once and for all. I had to drive the stake home while I had the chance.

"Speaking of J.M. Coetzee...does he even know you're here? For that matter how do I know that it isn't you who have made off with Elizabeth Costello's identity? That you aren't pulling some kind of scam by pretending to be her? Or, please forgive me for suggesting it, that you may be a little bit off your rocker? And, finally, no, I'm sorry. I'm not going to read J.M. Coetzee. This whole affair has given me all the taste of him that I can stomach. Thank you very much."

I could see that I had won if winning was to banish Elizabeth Costello from my life. She dropped the fist with the bunched up papers to her side. Her fleshy shoulders sagged inside her threadbare housecoat. "I'll leave in the morning," she said. "But I warn you. If this sees publication and, frankly, I hardly see how it can, there will be repercussions. Mr. Coetzee, recluse though he is, does not take kindly to plagiarism, regardless of his metafictional stance toward reality."

And, true to her word, she packed that night and, first thing in the morning, a cab pulled up to the curb to take her to the airport and back to Melbourne, or wherever it was she came from.


The days passed. Then the weeks. At first I could not get myself to believe that she was really gone--and gone for good. In the park, in the library, standing in line for my morning bagel and coffee I found myself half-expecting to see her lumbering, all-too-familiar shape emerge from the anonymous crowd faking surprise as if we'd come upon each other by chance alone. I found myself inwardly flinching at every louder than average voice, waiting for her intrusive greeting, the question ever-present on her tongue, "Have you read the Coetzee yet?"

But the Costello woman was gone. Truly and forever. I'd succeeded in driving her off. It took me some time to accept the fact. And, strange to say, it didn't leave me without some regret. 

It wasn't until nearly eight months later that I received the package in the post. A book, obviously, from its size and shape. Nothing unusual in that. I buy a lot of books, used, on Amazon, when I'm not borrowing them from the library. This one, though, judging from the stamps and postmark, had come from Australia. There was no return address. 

Yes, it's not hard to guess what was inside.

I leafed the pages but no note fell out. There was no card or letter. I turned to the title page. Nothing written there either. It wasn't signed or dedicated.

I considered it for a moment or two. I hated to admit it, and feared to admit it, too, but I almost missed Elizabeth Costello, still do. I considered the book for a moment, maybe two. Then I slid it, unread, on my bookshelf and started Renata Adler's Speedboat instead.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

=2013 Books Read=

Venus Drive
Sam Lipsyte

The Reading

There's always one. Sometimes there's more than one but tonight there was only one. She was hanging around waiting until all the others had drifted off with their signed copies, satisfied that they'd had their "personal moment" with the author. I had just finished my reading at The Brooklyn Public Library. I was drained, in need of a drink. Several drinks. These things take a lot out of you. The ones who hang around take the rest of it. But it's hard to resist them. At least whey they're women and reasonably cute.

She was both. The beret, the serious literary look, it meant trouble, but not the kind I felt I couldn't handle. She was carrying one of my earlier books, Venus Drive, not the one I'd been reading from that night. Not the one I was currently pushing. The one I believed in, at least at the moment. No, Venus Drive was a collection of stories from my early period, which is really not all that different from my middle or late period, if I'm perfectly honest. She was carrying it along with a John Banville novel and a copy of Slow Man by J.M Coetzee. The scent of trouble rose a couple of octaves. I was not going to fair well in such company. Hold me to your bosom with Nicola Barker or Chuck Palahuniak and I can hold my own. But against Banville and Coetzee. Come on. Those guys have won Man Booker Awards. Nobel Prizes. It's not a fair fight.

"Would you like me to sign that?" I asked her.

She frowned. "I don't think the library would appreciate it. They might consider it vandalism. Or maybe a hoax. They might suspend my card if they think I'd done it. Besides, I was just bringing it back. I'm done with it."

I didn't quite like the way she'd said "I'm done with it." So final. Like a dish of something she'd had enough of before even finishing it. I knew I shouldn't have asked, but I asked anyway. Shoot me. I'm a glutton for punishment. "Would you like to tell me what you thought of it?"

Her frown deepened.

"Not here though," I quickly added. "I'm beat and I need a drink."

She shrugged. "Okay. Sure. I guess."


We were seated in a booth at a local pub. No need to describe it. A half-dozen words will do: wood, tin, leaded glass, neon. Okay, five words. The drinks hadn't even arrived when she started in.

"The first story...well, it really seems to set the tone for all the rest. Your narrator visits, alternately, a peep show, a friend, a bar, a woman's apartment to shoot drugs, the hospital to visit and sexually molest his dying sister, the peep show again, the bar again. It really seems you're going out of your way to be intentionally distasteful. You're daring the reader to find something redeeming. The next story it's pretty much the same thing. The narrator is hooked on morphine again except now he's living in a building with a bunch of old ladies in the apartment his mother left behind when she died from cancer. He's basically another creep you're daring us to like. For a change of pace, you throw in a short story where the narrator is a young girl from a terrible dysfunctional family that ends with a dream about rollerskating under the city where she comes upon a secret morgue. Then it's back to the drug-dealing burn-outs for a while."

I threw back a drink and then another, but I took the next one more slowly.

"I take it you didn't like the book."

"No, it's not that at all. There's that story about the fat boy in that summer camp from hell. It was smart to include that story because it makes your narrator seem more likable than the others. Almost heroic. You were in danger at that point in having your readers identify you with your narrators who are, generally speaking, real jerks. Which I hope you don't mind me saying. Because I know that is rather the point. But still jerks are jerks. And I know we aren't supposed to identify the author with his narrators but it's hard not to when all your stories are told in the first person."

She'd hardly touched the beer she ordered. When I pointed this out to her, she looked at it like she was surprised to find it there. As if it had spontaneously grown there. Like a magic poison toadstool. "I don't drink," she said.

I was about to ask, but didn't bother. "Do you mind?" I made to reach for the glass. "I hate to see a beer die in vain."

"Go right ahead."

"You too."

"Well after that I guess it's kind of a blur. How could it not be? There's a story about a kid who's mom has cancer. A story about a kid who's dad has cancer. It seems someone always has cancer. It's dramatic, I know, to write a story where someone has cancer. But it strikes me as an easy way out. Like movies about people with cancer. If it's not cancer, then it's someone living a lowlife on drugs. The narrator often had a past life as a semi-successful rock musician. So its sort of like the same narrator telling variations of the same Ur-story of drugs, rock and roll, failed relationships, and general slackerdom. In other words, you. Or some version of you that you imagine yourself to be."

In the meantime, I ordered two more whiskeys and she ordered two more beers. I was in the process of drinking her second beer. "Yikes," I joked, "I sure hope you're not writing a book review."

"As a matter of fact I am."

My heart rolled over and sank. I feigned nonchalance, which wasn't hard to feign at this point in my career as a writer. Even easier in my career as a drunk. "Oh yeah? What paper?"

"Oh its not for a paper. It's for my blog."

My heart bobbed back merrily to the surface again. "Your blog?"

She looked positively cross. "I don't like the way you said 'your blog.' Like what you write couldn't just as easily have ended up on a blog if not for more than your share of lucky breaks."

"Well I don't know if I'd go that far."

"I would. And I know what you're thinking."

"What am I thinking?"

"I'm a bitter frustrated writer."

"Are you?"

"I may be a little bitter, I admit. But I'm not frustrated. I write all the time. A frustrated writer would be, by definition, someone who wanted to write but didn't."

"For your blog."

"On a bathroom wall if that's all that was available. Publishing what you wrote in a book or a magazine has nothing to do with it. Getting paid has nothing to do with it. Except for the bitterness part, maybe. But I'll have you know, my blog is visited by thousands."

I shuddered to think, considering what she'd been saying about my book. What she'd be likely to write in her review. "What's the address if you don't mind me asking? I might want to check out what you wrote about me." I tried to smile. Probably a mistake. I was afraid it might look like something assembled from bad instructions translated from the Chinese.

She wrote the address down on a cocktail napkin. Her pen was at the ready. It was then I realized she'd been taking notes on what I'd thought was our private, spontaneous little chat. She slid the napkin over and I stared at it without seeing anything. I couldn't see much then. Her head looked practically featureless at this point, like a thumbprint wearing a beret. I ordered another drink. I ordered her another beer.

"So I guess you're going to tell your thousands of readers what a crappy book Venus Drive is? What a lousy one-note, one-trick pony I am as a writer. You wouldn't be the first one to say so, let me assure you."

I said it like I was shrugging it off, but it was a critique that sat heavy on my shoulders all the same. Just between us, it hurt me. Probably because I suspected it was at least partially true. Like when you someone says you're losing your hair and you've been doing your best to hide it, especially from yourself.

"No, I won't say that. Well, I might say that in an oblique way. But I liked your stories in the end. I mean, I read the book all the way through and that means something. I even got a decent amount of enjoyment from it. I actually laughed a few times."

"You did?"

"Sure. Really, it was a good book and I wouldn't discourage anyone from reading it."

She seemed suddenly eager to comfort me, as if she'd seen something naked trembling and vulnerable in my face that frightened her into thinking I might do some rash sort of harm to myself and she'd be responsible.

"Nice to hear. After what you've been saying. I mean, you've been pretty negative."

"Well, it's the kind of writing, the kind of's unfortunate for you really. It's easier to say what you don't like about it than what you do like about it."

"Unfortunate me," I echo.

"It's like you say at the end of one of your stories. I don't remember the title. But its a kind of dystopian love story. At the end you leave a message on this woman's phone who you barely know explaining that though you hardly know her you somehow know that you love her, that you're fated to love her. You say, or your narrator says, but I think it's you, really, talking and you say 'the proof that it's there is that you can't quite see it.' And I think that pretty perfectly sums up my sense why, the end, your stories are worth reading. Why I like them. There's something there and the proof is that you can't quite see it. So you keep trying."

It was all I could do at that point to keep from falling out of the booth and onto the floor I was so loaded.

"If this were one of your stories," she said, "this would be the point where you'd invited me back to your place to shoot drugs and have sex with me and you'd pass out not knowing the next morning if we did it or not."

She smiled and slid her beer across the table towards me.


She was right. If this were, in fact, one of my stories, I'd wake up the next morning, alone, hungover and this would all be coming back to me piecemeal. I'd be wondering if I'd brought her back to my room. If we'd slept together.

I'd light a cigarette. I'd scratch my fingernails through my sparse, disordered hair and wonder how much, if any of it, happened at all. How much I'd simply imagined. Then I'd find her beret.

I'd frantically search the pockets of everything I wore the day before, much of it what I was still wearing, for the wet cocktail napkin on which she written the address of her website and find it smeared into an inky blue illegibility. A Rorschach blot meaning...god only knew what. It looks like, what else, a tumor.

I'd shrug, set the beret on my balding head, and find the last of my stash. I'd shoot it and sit by the window, muttering to the pigeons.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

=2013 Books Read=

Glittering Images
Camille Paglia


1. Camille Paglia. She's one of my intellectual heroes. She's one of those very rare writers who can write with wit and erudition about a breadbox. She's provocative without being dogmatic or doctrinaire.  She's a contrarian. One of the exciting things about reading her is that you never know for sure what side of an issue she is going to come down on. Even if you like her, you're bound to be in disagreement with her at least 30% of the time.

2. Glittering Images is a lightning-quick tour through art history from ancient Egypt to contemporary film-making. It makes no claim at comprehensiveness. It's an outline, basically, from which you can launch your own further study if you're so inclined. It's fast and fun but full of info. I read it in less than two days.

1. The choices Paglia makes about what to include and exclude. Disagreement is inevitable in a book like this when, like Pagila, you decide to choose 29 pieces of art as representative of the entire thrust of human artistic endeavor. It's an exclusive shortlist and practically everyone isn't getting an invitation to the party. As an intellectual and cultural provocateur, Paglia has a reputation of her own to uphold and she does so with some of her choices here. No Leonardo or Botticelli or Michelangelo, which, I have to say, was kind of a relief. Who hasn't read enough interpretations of the Mona Lisa and the Sistine Chapel ceiling? But John Wesley Hardrick (an obscure African-American portrait painter from mid-century Indianapolis)? George Lucas, "our greatest living artist"? Some of these choices really seem like over-stretches. Paglia plays the intellectual Gumby, I think, in the dual interest of being inclusive and controversial. But she pulls it off for the most part, exposing us to artists that have been underexposed and using them as departure points to discuss other associated artists and art-movements.

2. The price: too expensive. This book, in hardcover, though well-made and printed on that creepy (to me) slippery kind of paper that is hard to scribble notes on, is too short (190 pages of actual content) and costs too much. It's a night-stand book at an almost coffee-table price. I borrowed it from the library. That's what I'd suggest you do, too.

1. It isn't Sexual Personae, which remains Paglia's magnum opus. Her fans have been waiting for the long-ago promised follow-up to that masterpiece for years. Of course, it's not entirely fair to criticize Glittering Images for not being Sexual Personae, except to say that what we have in Glittering Images isn't Paglia's best work. 

Which leads to a much fairer criticism...

2. Paglia herself presents Glittering Images as art history for laypeople. But she's too sly and snarky to be Sister Wendy. And I think that's who she's trying to be here--a perverse Sister Wendy. And it doesn't quite work. Though this book is aimed towards a middle-brow audience it misses the mark, erring high. But not quite high enough for those who want more depth and detail, not to mention the full monty of Paglia's trademark attitude. In the end, Glittering Images is likely to be hard to digest for one audience and not quite satisfying enough for another. 

Another reason I don't think the book is ultimately worth the price of admission. 

Eat more pie. I never heard of anyone on their deathbed regretting that they ate too much pie. Ditto: chocolate chip pancakes. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

=2013 Books Read=

The Art of Recklessness
by Dean Young

Maybe tomorrow will be the day that everyone wakes

up to write a poem, Dean Young muses
in The Art of Recklessness.
Well, be careful what you wish for,
Dean, it might turn out to be a suitcase full
of your dead mom's pubic hair
that is delivered to your room.
What? Your mom's not dead yet?
Dental floss, then, used. Don't ask
what we've been eating! Steel wool
that has been stuck into unspeakable drains.
Aborted babies, the remains of which. 
Or a thousand chloroformed mice
due to wake up any moment now.
Quick! Close the cover!
Am I being deliberately distasteful
or just childish, or both?
Yes, I agree.
I agree with everything.
Let us jump up and down a stick of dynamite
in each fist and a fart cushion under every arm.
This isn't literature, you say? Of course it isn't.
Surrealism was never intended to create art;
it's a way to paint life with your imagination
to turn your salt and paper shakers 
into miniature horses
because refrigerators are something that exist
when you're not involved.
So let's unzip ourselves. Let's pull out
the string that stitches us together like a turkey
and see what falls to the floor.
Let's save only the interesting-looking bits.
Recipe for Writing a Poem:
1. Take a clean sheet of paper.
2. Do something on it that has never been done before.
One of the most disturbingly beautiful things I've ever heard
is how those starving to death during the Russian famine
sucked strings of meat from between each other's teeth.
Talk about a kiss!
What is a poem is the question you ask
when you've already been to Kansas.
What should a poem be is the question you ask
when you're choking to death on the tiny violin
in the back of your throat. A poem, then,
is something you've never seen before,
something coughed up in a tissue
like a Minotaur fetus. 
Is it death, then? Yes,
I'm pulling up the nails of my own coffin
because it's not time to climb inside
no matter what the coroner says.
I started a suicide note and it turned into a love letter
so full of plutonium that I was arrested as a terrorist
but I swear that I'm innocent of everything
except looking out the corners of my eyes.
Writing a  poem
is like throwing your feet out in front of you
to keep from falling
stumbling forward five or six steps
and then falling flat on your face anyway
breaking your nose
and bleeding all over the floor in great rusty poppies.
Look what it cost me,
three eye-teeth!
Because this book is a call to arms
if you still have arms to call
in the fight against flabby complacency.
If, like most of us, your arms were sawed-off
in the 3rd grade, this book is a magic spell
to charm your DNA to grow new ones
the way certain species of newt can grow new tails.
No, it can't be done; at least not until it's been done,
so why not try? Anyone can
grow imaginary arms in the meantime;
it's been proven. I proved it this morning
at 4.17 a.m. With them, you can reach
the imaginary jars the Nazis have hidden
high up in the cupboard.
I have a thousand eggs unhatched inside me
and I want to break them all before I die.
Maybe tomorrow will be the day that everyone wakes up
to write a poem, Dean Young muses
in The Art of Recklessness--
it's at his own peril that he muses thus
as I hope here to have amply shown.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

=walking eyeball sketchbook=

=2013 Books Read=

The Biographer's Tale
by A.S. Byatt

This is a book I had no intention of reading. I was just sitting there on my couch and it fell from the ceiling right into my hands. I was watching television at the time, "Pawn Stars," I think it was, or some show with wildlife in it, perhaps a Kardashian sister. These things happen. Truth is stranger than fiction.

Anyway, I'd read A.S. Byatt's The Virgin in the Garden and enjoyed it immensely. Originally, and ever since, I've been looking for her Booker Prizewinning masterpiece Possession at the library but can't find it. Seems it's always checked out to some fellow Brooklynite or other. The Virgin in the Garden was a dense, challenging read in very tiny print. But well worth the considerable effort it took to squint my way through it.

Byatt is a thorny, wry, puckishly funny, prickly author of vast intellect. You get the sense that she'd cross a Viking battlefield to rewrite a sentence that didn't suit her. I saw an interview done with her on Youtube in which the young woman doing service as her interlocutor asked why she didn't write autobiographical novels. Why she always seemed to write about characters, lives, and time periods other than her own. Her answer was that in writing about subjects outside of herself she was able to learn things that she didn't already know. For Byatt, writing wasn't about self-discovery. It was about discovering the "other." She went on to observe that she often suspected that so-called "self-expressive" authors, those who drew on their own emotions and experience to write novels were, perhaps, trying to convince themselves that they had the emotions they wrote about. For Byatt, it is unnecessary to write about what she feels. Feeling it is more than enough.

I'm paraphrasing, of course. And I'm digressing, too. You could say that sums up my entire life: a parenthetical footnote lasting something less than a century. In this case, though, my meandering trickle of thought does bear relevance to the book at hand. Well, it's not at hand any longer. It's back on the shelf at the Brooklyn Public Library where you can take it out yourself the last time I checked. And I suggest you do.

It's about a young graduate student of postmodern literary studies, Phineas G. Nanson. Practically by the end of the novel's first sentence Phineas declares that he's sick of being a graduate student of postmodern literary studies. He's tired of deconstruction, sick of structuralism, sicker, still, of post-structuralism. He's lost his taste for the intellectual mind-games that never resolve a thing, the perambulations through halls of mirrors with no destination, the navel gazing, the endlessly sterile mystifications that don't just seem to be the inevitable unfortunate result of postmodern literary theory, but the desired end in itself. What Phineas wants is to pursue the study of something substantial. Something he can grab hold of. Something he can really sink his teeth into--intellectually speaking, that is.

What better field to pursue than biography? The objective study of the life of another person. A person who indisputably existed outside of oneself. An individual who was born, who lived, and who died. It's all right there on record. Right? And there's even an interesting subject right to hand. The once (modestly) celebrated, now all-but-forgotten biographer Scholes Destry-Scholes. 

You can see it coming, perhaps? How by choosing a biographer as a subject for his biography that Phineas has fallen write back into the postmodern mirrored trap that he sought to escape. For by writing a biography about a biographer, Phineas is confronted by the same problems of relativity, of slippery identity, of truth versus relativity that made his former studies seem so vapid and insubstantial. The closer Phineas gets to Scholes Destry-Scholes the less there seems to see of the man. When he discovers some papers that the great biographer was working up--a sort of comparative study of the seemingly disparate lives of Henrik Ibsen, Francis Galton, and Charles Linnaeus (you'll learn who they are in the book if you don't know already)--Phineas is disconcerted to discover that Destry-Scholes wasn't as objective as one might wish a biographer to be. He distorted known facts (known facts: ha!), repeated what he knew to be his subject's fantasies and fictions, and added a few of his own. What Phineas discovers is that Destry-Scholes, even as a biographer, is writing as much about himself as he is about the lives of his subjects.

And, in writing about Destry-Scholes, so Phineas is writing as much about himself. 

Is all writing, then, really autobiography on some level? 

Was the answer that A.S. Byatt gave to that young interviewer all B.S.? Or just partly B.S.?

Can we ever escape the relativist, solipsistic maze? Or is it, as the postmodernists seem to imply, a necessary "evil"? And, if so, being necessary, being the very ground of our existence, perhaps not evil at all?

I suspect that this is but one way to read this fascinating novel. In truth, it is not an easy read and I suspect that a lot of it went sailing right over my head, especially inasmuch as I didn't devote as much time to picking it apart as it probably deserves. As a novel about a writer writing a book, Byatt employs a lot of entertaining metafictional devices, which surprised me, as she can sometimes strike one as  a rather conservative, stodgily traditional writer. But in The Biographer's Tale she's playful and entertaining, even light-hearted, which is to say, light-hearted for her.  It's the kind of book that pretends to contain research gathered for Phineas's book: which means, in this case, photographs and drawings. They are a nice break. As is the humor. And the occasional erotic hijinks and descriptions of insect battles. It's the kind of book where you learn a lot of ancillary stuff that Byatt learned during her research, which is one of the reasons she gave for writing about other lives...even if she wryly suggests in this novel that, in the end, we can only really write about ourselves.

A.S. Byatt is indisputably somewhere in these pages. She's said so herself without saying so at all. And that is a large part of what makes this novel so infinitely beguiling.