My Blog List

  • - * 13 DOORS OF X* *Meeah Williams* The Barking Cat Press * 2015 Brooklyn, NY * Seattle, WA copyright 2015 Meeah Williams/The Barking Cat...

Sunday, April 27, 2014

=mail art received=

::Bob Ray, Ocracoke, NC:: 

Another great piece from Bob. A picture doesn't do it justice. Layered papers, paint, and grit impart peek-a-boo levels of perspective and varied textures. Kudos to the U.S. Post office for getting this one to me safe and sound and on time, too, as Bob gave my street address his own unique and creative twist!::

Saturday, April 26, 2014

=for antonin artaud=


::paintings on old CDs::

=do not crush=

=more random notes on "The Four-Gated City=

"These people still lived inside the shadow of their war, they were still rationed, their buildings were still thinned or ruinous, men had been killed, men had not come back from fighting."

This is what England looks like when Lessing's alter-ego Martha Quest arrives from her native South Africa. She has left behind two marriages, her children, and everything she has known to this point in order to start a new life—her life. Up to now, she feels as if she has been sleepwalking, playing a role written in a drama authored by a malevolent puppetmaster. 

The notion of being asleep, or living by remote control, is central to the novel. On the dedication page of "The Four-Gated City", Lessing reprints an old dervish teaching story from Idries Shah's "The Way of the Sufi." G.I. Gurdjieff, who channeled many Sufi ideas, made "remembering oneself" in order to "wake up" a key aspect of the spiritual exercises he taught his students. I don't know what Lessing's position was towards Gurdjieff (she most certainly would have heard of him) but she made no secret of her admiration of and debt to Sufism. What does Martha want? "I want," she says succincntly, "to live in such a way that I don't just turn into a hypnotized animal."

On the ship to England, she observes with horror how her fellow passengers exist in a kind of senseless narcotized cycle of eating, drinking, fucking, and sleeping that may be exaggerated on a pleasure-cruise, but the true horror is that this is essentially no different from how everyone lives all the time. If nothing else, it is the life-condition favored by the majority of people, a state seen as ideal, as living the "good life," proven by the the very fact that the cruise represents for the people lucky enough to be able to afford it the height of luxury, refinement, and enjoyment. 

Once in England, Martha hopes to find a more progressive society than the one she left behind in South Africa. But she is soon disillusioned. Attitudes in England may be subtler, more politely expressed, but they are every bit as ignorant, bigoted, and fearful as those she thought to escape in provincial South Africa. Racism is refined, reasoned,and rampant; political intolerance well-bred and vigorous. Conformity is enforced with the bit, if not the whip; the iron hand strikes, though it wears an expensive suede glove. 

Short of money and in need of a job, Martha first visits an old lover. Jack is a hedonistic painter, or at least he masquerades as a painter, because saying he is a painter gives him license to be a hedonist and to live as he does: which is basically as a squatter in a large house where he entertains a steady stream of women who drift in mainly from the upper classes. Jack was in the navy and narrowly survived a harrowing wartime experience which left him ever-hungry for food and sex. Martha spends a night with him and realizes that she can spend no more than that. Jack understand the world through his body. Martha understands it through her mind. They can only meet in bed. Though she has nowhere else to go, Martha knows that accepting Jack's offer to move in with him would be a mistake, as well as an easy way out. But even worse, it would represent a failure to act, an instance of cowardice, a betrayal of her independence and the whole reason she sacrificed her past to come to England. It would amount in effect to a kind of death.

She turns Jack down only to find herself taking a live-in secretarial position to an upper-class businessman and sometime writer. Mark Coldridge lives in what was once an English house in the grand tradition now fallen into neglect. He is unhappily entrenched in a dysfunctionally neurotic family situation with a mad wife, a sad child, and an overbearing mother that reminds Martha painfully of her own failed marriages. The irony is bitter. Here she has crossed an ocean in search of something new and has landed smack in the middle of "what she had lived through already." She plans to leave the employ of Mark Coldridge as soon as she possibly can, but finds it harder than she thought. "If you start something," she finds, "get on a wavelength of something, then there's no getting off, getting free, unless you've learned everything there is to be learned—have had your nose rubbed in it." 

Apparently you don't need to die to experience karma. It seems to operate with a grim economy not only from incarnation to incarnation, but within one's present as well. Martha will stay with Mark Coldridge and, despite her fierce resistance, find herself slipping back into her enabling, nurturing, self-effacing "housewife conditioning." But she's conscious of it, fighting against it, and this makes all the difference. When one is in prison the first step in making an escape is to know that you are imprisoned.

=its probably like comparing apples to oranges but...=

Friday, April 25, 2014

=A Drowning Interrupted=

S/tick, a webjournal based in Canada, is hosting one of my short stories. You can 
check it out (&, of course, the other fine stuff on offer) here:

=do not break down skid=

=sparrow muffin=

::one side of a one-off "zine" cut from the scribbled-on paper placemat i use on the kitchen table until it's too stained to use anymore. mailed off as irregularly as possible only to a select group of subscribers who haven't subscribed to it at all & in all likelihood wonder "what the hell?" & don't even want it (until it becomes a collector's item & then they'll wish they hadn't thrown it out with the K-Mart flyer!) the other side is even more non-sensical & random than this side & contains all sorts of glyphs, codes, and scribble-scrabbles, sewn-on feathers, buttons, & is often ringed with coffee-stains, lipstick marks, etc. (See Carole Maso, "Break All the Rules") This isn't just doodled ephemera and trash, by god,—it's the new literature liberated from five thousand years of monolithic patriarchal Aristotelian oppression!::

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

=the butterfly maker=

::collage collaboration with Richard Canard, although I don't know that you can exactly call it a "collaboration," since he was unaware that I xeroxed & adapted some materials that he sent me to construct this piece.::

=Doris Lessing's reaction to having won the Nobel Prize=

Who says you can't be an 88 year-old woman & cooler than a rock-star?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

=some random notes on The Four-Gated City=

As much as "The Four-Gated City" is about freeing oneself from political and cultural propaganda it is every bit as much about freedom from oppressive social, sexual, and, ultimately, psychological conformity. 

Martha drifts through the city (of London) without destination. She plays with identity, often spontaneously assuming an alias when a stranger approaches to strike up a conversation. She proceeds to invent an entire biography on the fly. She finds she can do this effortlessly. She observes that her interlocutors regularly help to fill in the details of her own invented history "out of what they wanted, needed, from-not you, not you at all, but from their own needs." By becoming a cypher, she can talk to anyone, be anyone, gain access to people and places that would otherwise be inaccessible if she insisted on defining herself to others.

But this mode of being has it's downside. If she remains purposely undefined in order to adapt, to adopt any role she chooses based on the occasion, she is also allowing others to redefine her according to their own needs, doing so with or without her permission, or even knowledge. As she walks home alone late one evening after a dinner out, she passes through a dark section of park where she comes to understand that she is no longer "Martha Quest," but that she is subject to the interpretation of others against her will. She is vulnerable to reclassification, in this particular instance, as a potential victim.

"Martha now walked fast...she was a 'young woman'—yes, she must remember that she was, and that along these pavements a category of being, "man", prowled beside or behind her. That was what she must be for a few minutes, not Martha or Matty, only 'young woman.'"

Even in ordinary daylight social situations, Martha finds herself subject to a treacherous slippage of personal identity. She is irritated to find that she is complicit in her own betrayal. She finds herself involuntarily speaking and acting in ways meant to appease others, to fit in, but also to avoid giving offense, even at the expense of her own self-respect. 

When she is among associates of the working class, she finds herself acting and speaking in such a way so as not to betray her education and cultured background. Conversely, when she is among well-heeled acquaintances of a class higher than her own, she finds herself adopting a deferential mien. She is not doing this in a premeditated self-serving way. Instead, these behaviors seem socially imprinted into her. And that is what makes them all the more difficult to uproot. 

As a woman, she finds herself being alternately obsequious, apologetic, and subordinate even when she feels herself to be none of these things. Her social conditioning seems to her a betrayal of her unique human individuality. Once aware of this conditioning, she can no longer plead ignorance. She has a choice, difficult as it may be. She must take responsibility for her acquiescence to the code—or stand up in opposition to it. To Martha, surrender isn't an option; it is self-betrayal; it is cowardice. 

Martha struggles to assert herself without relying on habitual patterns of manipulative passivity. She tries repeatedly, with limited success, to make her desires known directly without treating them—and herself—as a kind of joke, without resorting to a self-effacement verging on self-erasure, or acting the bumbling, scatter-brained female which are the only "socially accepted" ways for a female to step outside her accepted role and to assert herself. Martha no longer wants to be thought of as an "eccentric character," the misguided, if well-intentioned, girl who amuses her  audience with her comic unorthodoxy. 

As Martha becomes more and more conscious of the numerous "roles" she is assigned to play in society, she becomes painfully aware that she is not acting out of a stable center. What is her center? Does she even have one? Who is this amalgamation of pleasing, self-effacting gestures she calls by the all-too-general name Martha Quest? More to the point, who is the person that other people call "Martha Quest"? The question bedevils her.

"...who then was she, behind the banalities of the day? A young woman? No, nothing but a soft dark respective intelligence, that was all...she was, nothing to do with Martha, or any other name she might have had attached to her, nothing to do with what she looked like, how she had been shaped. And if she were able to go on walking, as she was now, day after day, night after night, down this street, up that, past houses, houses, houses, passing them always, with their shuttered and curtained eyes behind which a dull light hid, if she were able only to do that..."

"...if only I could understand that it's a question of trying to see things steadily all the time, then perhaps I could understand it."

Martha is seeking individuation, coherence, unity. Ask twenty people who know her, they will all tell you who Martha Quest is. Ask her, she won't know. This is the Quest Martha has embarked on in "The Four-Gated City."

Monday, April 21, 2014

=some notes on the book i'm currently reading=

"...this was a country absorbed in myth, doped and dozing and dreaming, because if there was one common fact or factor underlying everything else, it was that nothing was as it was described—as if a spirit of rhetoric (because of the war?) had infected everything, made it impossible for any fact to be seen straight."  —Doris Lessing

Early in the The Four-Gated City, Doris Lessing describes the sense of displacement and disassociation, the Twilight-Zone unreality that her alter-ego/heroine Martha Quest experiences as she navigates a world that no longer corresponds to the official narrative. 

We find ourselves today in an identical predicament. We are repeatedly told that we live in a free society even while our rights and freedoms are being methodically taken away. We are told that we live in the best possible country but the majority of us have no real experience of life in other countries. We are told that our country only goes to war to defend itself and to uphold liberty, that anyone can grow up to be president, that our political and economic system is the fairest when we know damn well that none of these claims are true, or, at best, that they are arguable. 

Is it true that we are any freer than, say, Canadians, who also vote, as do Italians, and the citizens of Spain, England, Germany, Australia, Venezuela, and a laundry list of other countries, even Russia? Are we cognizant of the fact that in many other countries there are even more political parties to choose from than here in America, so that in other countries there is arguably more choice than in the U.S. with its hardly distinguishable, grid-locked, two-party system? Do we stop to think that in actuality anyone can grow up to be leader of any country—consider, for instance, that Stalin was the illegitimate child of peasants and he became ruler of the Soviet Union. Of course, it took a revolution for him to do it, but does anyone really doubt it wouldn't take a complete overthrow of the current status quo for a truly poor person, a person outside of the club of wealth and privilege, to become "president" of the United States today?

In the post-monarchical world any person can, theoretically, grow up to be "president" in any country, if they have the cunning, the ruthlessness, and, of course, the wealth, either through their own enterprise, or the backing of someone wealthy. Of course, it's always been like this and always will be, but somehow we continue to believe the puerile myths of the exclusive exceptionality of our own particular society. Why? To paraphrase Goethe, "No man is more enslaved as the man who falsely thinks himself free."

Am I un-American for thinking the way I do? Well, I sure hope so. I'm not an "American," I'm a human being. The accident of my birth within the purely arbitrary and ultimately transitory borders of a place designated as "America" was something that happened outside of my control or choice. If I'd been born in France, I'd have been just as nonsensically expected to be proud that I was "French".

Most people don't even question the truth of the slogans and propaganda by which they are governed, they simply absorb them as truisms, as catechism, even while being dimly aware of their falsity. This was a theme that Lessing took up again in her short but excellent book of essays "The Prisons We Choose to Live Inside." What does this duality, this schizophrenic doubling do to the average person? Is it any wonder that so many "normal" people are  psychologically dysfunctional, so prone to depression, substance abuse, overeating, overspending, outbursts of displaced anger, sexual addictions, and so on?

And how does the person who dares to actually think things through live in such a world without going mad themselves, a world where everyone around them is asleep, mad, repeating lies, acting by remote control or out of control altogether? How can they turn on the television or read the paper or look at what passes for the official version of events on the internet without the disquieting sense that they are all alone in the world? Because god forbid you try to nudge your fellow dreamers awake, the wrath you are certain to incur will teach you the most horrible truth of all: most people prefer to remain asleep.

These are the questions that Martha Quest faces in Lessing's monumental novel. They can be summed up in one Ur-Question: how, with so much pressure to conform, can one live a fully authentic life?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

=books recently read=

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Her last and most famous novel, the one that brought Jean Rhys widespread critical and commercial success, reviving her literary career and reputation when she was all but forgotten, "Wide Sargasso Sea" is justly praised, it's a haunting, wonderful novel, but it's not my favorite. I can see why it's generally considered her crowning achievement. In "Wide Sargasso Sea," she achieved an autobiographical distance and detachment from her fictional creation that she didn't manage to keep nearly so well in her other novels. This objectivity makes for better "art," so the thinking goes, but it's precisely the autobiographical engagement in her work, the confessional immediacy that I most appreciate. As a result, fantastic as it is, "Wide Sargasso Sea," ends up being "just" another story.

But, no, that's not quite right either. Because Antoinette is still Jean Rhys: a woman of mixed blood raised in the Virgin Islands who never feels she truly belongs anywhere. It is one of the embarrassing holes in my English Literature education that I never read Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre". I was always more an Emily Bronte kind of girl, obsessive and masochistic, tragic and morbidly romantic,  attracted to the dark and brooding Heathcliff braying like a werewolf with barely contained homicidal violence on the moors or in the drawing room—oh the thrill imagining what he'd do if only he could get his hands on me! Anyway, like my preference for Dostoyevsky over Tolstoy, I favored Emily over Charlotte and therefore I don't know first-hand "Jane Eyre," the novel that Rhys wrote "Wide Sargasso Sea" to compliment. Antoinette is meant to be the mad wife locked away in Rochester's attic and "Wide Sargasso Sea" is the untold story of what happened to cause her to lose her mind.

What happened to Antoinette is hardly straightforward. She is the daughter of a white English father and a beautiful mixed-blood island mother. You might say she is the product of the disastrous colonization of the West Indies by the English, who exploited and enslaved the native population, growing rich and despised. When slavery was at last abolished, the whites found themselves a hated minority, no longer welcome in the land they called home. 

But they stayed, growing more and more insular, sticking with their own for survival. Then Antoinette's father dies and her mother—neither wholly white nor wholly black, same as Antoinette—finds herself rejected by both white and black society. Isolated and ostracized, her mother slowly goes mad, but not before marrying another white man. And a rich one at that. 

It's this stepfather's money that Antoinette eventually inherits and that makes her the target of a plot by her half-brother who intends to wrest the fortune from her. Enter Rochester. He will marry Antoinette with his eye on the prize: her inheritance. At least that is the way it seems from one point of view. But this is ultimately what makes "Wide Sargasso Sea" such a compelling read. Events are very much open to interpretation. There are moments when it seems entirely plausible that Rochester does—or would—love Antoinette if he didn't feel that Antoinette is desperate  for love and that he is as incidental to her as she—as a rich pigeon—supposedly is to him. It seems entirely plausible that both Antoinette and Rochester have such a deep need to be loved that neither can love or trust that they are loved for who they are. And so, their hastily concocted marriage swiftly falls apart amidst scheming, spiteful servants, voodoo magic, and lascivious native chambermaids. 

There is more than a little touch of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" in these pages. Completely unprepared, Rochester has entered a lush, tropical world where everything is heat, beauty, disorder, and cruelty. His own world is rational, cool, well-proportioned, English. He's fighting not to lose his head in this jungle, figuratively, and maybe even literally. The place has got him spooked. As has Antoinette. But by the time he has her back on a ship to England, she's been whipped. He's found her weakness, exploited it mercilessly, and prevailed. She will end up in an attic room where she has frightened and haunted the readers of "Jane Eyre" ever since.

It's not really accurate to say that "Wide Sargasso Sea" is not as personal a book as, say, "Good Morning, Midnight," but the personal is more deeply buried, more successfully transformed; in this case, Rhys not only creates a character clearly distinguishable from herself, but she borrows one from another author altogether, albeit reanimating Charlotte Bronte's creation with new life—Rhys's life, more or less. Actually, less. From at least one point of view, this is the mark of a mature artist. I'm willing to concede that it may well be, but, if so, it is at the cost of the raw urgency that drives Rhys's other novels, the books where she speaks out to us unfiltered by fictional screens, directly from the page, without masks or masquerades, in all her anger, pathos, sadness, and black humor. That Rhys is unlike any other writer; and the one that I will always love best. 

=mail art received=

::Richard Canard, Carbondale, IL::  

And sometimes it isn't Proust or Tolstoy, but a trashy novel from the public library that is exactly what one needs the most. One of the great things about Richard's work is that it shuttles back and forth between high and lowbrow so rapidly (like the REM sleep that purportedly produces dreams?) you can see it either way, as suits your mood—or need.

=mail art received=


::Nancy Bell Scott, Old Orchard Beach, ME:: "We Think We Want to Understand." A stunningly beautiful piece! It is as satisfying to look "at" as it is rewarding to look "into." A wonderful example of the magical synergy that can occur between found elements and hand-made markings when executed by that rare someone who has the eye—and hand—for both.  

Thursday, April 17, 2014

=books recently read=

Andrew's Brain by E.L. Doctorow. Andrew is a professor of cognitive brain science. That means his field of study isn't just the brain as an organ, but as the ostensible producer of consciousness. He is narrating the events of his life as if he's being interviewed. But it isn't at first clear who is interviewing him, or if he is talking to himself; whether he's insane or has attained a lucidity that only seems insane. After all, when you start to seriously question from where your sense of identity comes, how—and even whether—you can really know who you are, you're bound to start sounding a bit like a schizophrenic.

We quickly learn that Andrew has suffered some horrendous stuff in his life. He has become convinced that he draws disaster down on everyone around him—while he walks away relatively unscathed. Is this further evidence of his mental instability? He accidentally killed his first child by administering a mistakenly prescribed medication. That'll unbalance anyone. His marriage didn't survive this tragedy and Andrew almost didn't either. What saved him was moving West to start life over. He got a new job teaching at a new university and there he met and fell in love with one of his pretty young students. 

They eventually marry, move to Manhattan, and have a baby together. Andrew is happier than he's ever been in his life; in fact, he's happy for the first time in his life. But don't you know, it isn't going to be happily-ever-after. 

This is when 9-11 unfortunately enters the story. It seems that all our great writers, from Don DeLillo to Joyce Carol Oates, feel compelled to write about this event. I'm frankly tired of it. But Doctorow does them all one better. Because it turns out that Andrew was also once the college roommate of a certain recent president whose college days are, well, hardly marked by stellar scholarship. Suddenly, it becomes clear what's happened to Andrew, where he is, and the nature of the interview.

Doctorow turns "Andrew's Brain" into an indictment of America's post-9/11 mental breakdown beginning with the dysfunctional machinations of those at the very top of the governmental pyramid. "You're not even the worse," he tells the president. "You're just the worse so far. There are even worse coming after you." At this point, Doctorow's novel loses a lot of whatever sense of reality it might have had, and becomes a parable about what happens when paranoia, greed, stupidity, and raging egoism rein supreme in men's consciousness. You get a world in which war is the answer to every problem, the most heinous aggression is masked by unthinking moral superiority, and a people become completely blind to their unmitigated hypocrisy as they ravage the very world in which they live like a cancer inside a body upon which it ultimately depends.

Even more, though, than just an indictment of America and it's haphazard rampage of world- destruction, "Andrew's Brain" is a thunderous judgment against humanity itself, which, in refusing to "know itself" makes the same tragic mistakes again and again. But here is where Doctorow goes one step further and where "Andrew's Brain" becomes truly chilling. Because current cognitive brain research suggests that no matter how introspective and self-reflective we may be, it's impossible to truly know ourselves. That our brains may prompt us to act before we become conscious of those actions. We are not in control. And if we're not in control, then what is, and what can we do about it, except follow along from tragedy to tragedy, saying "I'm sorry"?

Well, in the case of our insanely certain leaders, that would at least be a start.

Doctorow, coming to the end of a long and distinguished literary career, not to mention a long and distinguished life, clearly had a few things to get off his chest and he used his literary status as his bully-pulpit and "Andrew's Brain" to do it.

=magick square (guardian of the sketchbook)


a child never understands
why a dandelion
is a weed
& i'm pleased to say
i don't either

=genesis of a tanka poem=


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

=books recently read=

Self-Help by Lorrie Moore. Go to the library looking for something specific, what it was you can't even remember anymore, but you don't find it. This is what usually happens. This is how you often find what you really need to read. What you find instead is a slim volume of short stories by an author you've heard about but never read.  She's the kind of writer you've eschewed since graduate school, because she's been published by The New Yorker and publications like it, the epitome of establishment culture and middle-of-the-road liberalism. The kinds of magazines people like to leave on their coffee tables next to the Architectural Digest to show they're still hip even though they drive a Lexus, or wish they did. You have nothing in common with such people and that must mean you have nothing in common with the writers who appear in the magazines they put on their coffee tables. What's next? Will you be reading John Updike?

You shudder at the thought.

Pull the book out from where its tightly packed on the shelf between larger, bulkier books. Turn it over, look at the author photo: an attractive white woman with long dark hair, skin pulled tight, an intensity in the eyes that makes you think she'd probably be hard to get along with, always taking offense at something or other. She looks like she must come from Connecticut or some upscale upstate New York enclave, probably went to one of those elite all-girl's school, took horseback riding lessons, with the little velvet cap and everything. Maybe you're being unfair, judging a book by its back cover author photo, but something about her screams p-r-i-v-l-e-g-e. No wonder you couldn't bear to read her. She burns you up with envy. 

You take a look at the copyright page. The book is nearly thirty years old. Yikes! Well, it's about time you got over it, dontcha think? Time you buried the hatchet with the establishment, its well-established for a reason, after all; it's not going anywhere, not anytime soon. If nothing else, know thy enemy, right?

You read the first story: "How to be an Other Woman." It's a mock guide to having an affair, written in the second person, like this review is written, as if directly to a hypothetical reader. This is a device, gimmick, style, take your pick, that Moore uses repeatedly throughout this collection, notably—and humorously—in her story "How to Become a Writer," which starts off with the best advice of all, "first, try to be something, anything else." You find this manner of writing effective, cool, hip, or it was twenty-something years ago. Still it draws you in; you wish you'd thought of it. 

There's a story where a mother warns her adult daughter never to make the mistake she did by marrying an  emotionally frigid man. Another narrated by a terminally ill children's book author—a wife and mother who decides to commit rational suicide rather than allow cancer to pick apart her life one pincer at a time. Another story  moves backward in time from 1982 to 1939 outlining the trajectory of a woman's experience of her mother all the way back to birth. You read a story about a woman who is a kleptomaniac and compulsive eater; her problems compounded by a husband who is having an affair. Then there is a story about a woman who suspects her husband is leaving her for another woman only to find that he must leave her for  reasons far more nebulous than mere adultery, compared to which overcoming sexual betrayal would be a piece of cake.

You think, well, so what? What's so new and different about these stories? Haven't there been a thousand like them? Yes, probably, which is probably why they resonate with so many readers. But to tell the truth, you really don't have a ton in common with Lorrie Moore's characters; your life has been a lot more fucked up, a lot less mainstream, even though Lorrie Moore is known for writing about offbeat, quirky, fucked-up characters. 

It's not the stories, really, but the writing that engages you. Lorrie Moore is funny, incisive, and, when it comes to turning a phrase, has a scalpel-like precision. There's a death-bed scene so viscerally particular you can't imagine it was completely imagined. A wife losing her mind stabs her unfaithful husband in the gut and compares it to trying to shove a knife into a radiator. The book is full of memorable images like this one, the kind of images that suddenly illuminate a mood or a moment, that stay with you long after the particulars and plot of a story have faded. 

You see how these stories could have spoken to you, even for you, but only if you—or someone like you—rewrote them. If you wrote them, for instance, you would write about having affairs with married men, but just for the sex, the more sordid and abusive the better. If you wrote about your parent's marriage, you'd write how it was your mother who was the cold one and your father who had to beg in vain for intimacy and how that turned him violent and crazy. In other words, Lorrie Moore writes about characters who have dysfunctional lives, but they are dysfunctional in all the familiar, typical, and therefore politically correct "safe" ways the majority of people expect; your, however, life is atypically dysfunctional, as if you came from a shadow planet outside the solar system. You never lived in a New Yorker universe. You never will. You might as well be writing in asemics. Sometimes you do. 

You were right to feel that Lorrie Moore was part of a bourgeoisie literary establishment whose canon reflects a life that bears little resemblance to yours. But wrong not to read her anyway, because she has tools you could have co-opted to your own use. It's still not too late. What time is it, anyway? 

Friday, April 11, 2014

=Books recently read=

I Went To China. I Wrote Things Down by Jon Foster. There have been entire books that I haven't enjoyed as much as the two-sentence title of this 'zine (and you can tell how much I love the title by how many times I'm going to repeat it throughout the course of this review). In this case, you can judge a book by its cover. The flat, declarative announcement that is this 'zines title is an exact reflection of what you'll find on the 30-odd pages inside. And it's all written in the same offhand, deadpan style that just dares you to ask, "so what? Why should the minutiae of a visiting teacher in Beijing be of any interest to anyone? Why should anyone read this?"

Simple answer: "Because I fucking wrote it down, that's why."

This tautological raison d'etre informs Foster's utterly random and meandering musings that begin with his observation, just after takeoff, of "a man who has already gone to the toilet three times" who is "reading a Chinese newspaper with a picture of a plane crash on the front. Allowing a passenger to read something like this should be illegal." 

Foster went to China to teach for a few weeks in the summer of 2011 and this little 'zine is an adaptation of the journal he kept of the experience. The long and the short of it: nothing happened. So much for the "plot" of "I Went To China. I Wrote Things Down". As for the wisdom he culled from his trip to this ancient and culturally rich land, here is a summary of some of the highlights:

The Chinese think I'm fat. I've been called fat a lot; their codeword is "strong."

There's no toilet paper in the bathrooms nor is there any paper towels.

Only ramen noodles come with forks, otherwise it's chopsticks and tiny spoons. 

Chinese rice wine tastes like gasoline and may or may not be made in bathtubs.

In the late 70s a Chinese official went to see John Denver live and brought back one of his records to China...creating a lot of Chinese John Denver fans. Many of the songs sung in the singing competitions are John Denver ones.

Buicks seem to be the most popular American car.

The Chinese do not wear sunglasses.

The Chinese eat bread with chopsticks and watermelon with a spoon.

Look, if I want a learned book about Chinese history, art, politics, and culture I'm sure the Brooklyn Public Library has a wall or two of shelves loaded to the rafters with them, all penned by noted Sinologists with many high falutin' accreditations to their name. But where else am I going to learn that toddlers have small slits in the back of their pants which allow them to shit directly on the street while held by their parents? This is the kind of information that only Jon Foster can provide. This is why you're reading "I Went To China. I Wrote Things Down"!

Dammit, Jon Foster is practically like the Marco Polo of the 21st century!

Okay, not exactly; he didn't bring back anything as valuable as macaroni. But the sort of anecdotal barstool view of cultural history that he offers certainly has a contribution to make.I really do feel like I understand a bit more about the "real" China than I did before reading this text. For instance, Foster draws a verbal portrait of the "typical" Chinese student that is actually a brilliant compact piece of journalistic sociology. He could have been writing for the CIA. 

Come to think of it, maybe he was. He'd make the perfect spy. I doubt anyone would suspect him of nefarious purpose. 

As it is, he doesn't entirely ignore the delicate matter of politics. For instance, did you know that the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square are officially called "traffic incidents"? Foster's visit happens to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party in China. It's an event to which the Chinese exhibit a surprising indifference. "At some point," Foster opines, "I imagine the people will forget they're a communist country and one day they won't be." On several levels, this strikes me as a brilliant political and social observation and the more I consider it, the more I'll bet he's right.

But Foster doesn't dwell on stuff like that for long and rightly so. Instead he returns to the quotidian observations that make "I Went To China. I Wrote Stuff Down" so unique, and therefore, so necessary. He talks about the novelty of feeling exotic, which, as a regular guy back in North Carolina, he finds something of a hoot. He talks a lot about beer and drinks even more of it. He talks about food. Hot pot meals that leave his face feeling scalded as if with radiation burns. A lamb cooked tabletop on a spit from which he and his friends tear off by the hunkful like a gang of Mongolian barbarians. Chicken feet skins that "looked like little socks." Strips of roasted duck bill. And some sort of delicious mystery meat (Damn, Jon eats an awful lot of meat!!) that may or may not have been donkey. Perhaps, it was better that Foster inquired no further. As Confucius say, What you don't know won't make you vomit. At least none of Foster's party went "missing" and no one found an earring in their bowl. 

And, of course, Foster touches on the teaching that he did, his ostensible reason for visiting China and what led to his writing this 'zine in the first place; but he doesn't touch it much and I can't resist thinking that in itself is ultimately both the point and the genius of "I Went To China. I Wrote Things Down." It's the stuff you do while doing the stuff you do that is often the real stuff, the stuff that makes for a story worth telling. And "I Went to China. I Wrote Things Down." most certainly is a story worth telling—and reading. 

You can get your very own copy of "I Went To China. I Wrote Things Down." It'll go perfect with your Moo Goo Gai Pan the next time you order take-out. Apparently, you can write to Jon himself to request a copy  at:

=mail art received=

::Petrolpetal, Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa::

=Books Recently Read=

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys. She writes with the spleen and misanthropy of Celine. She spits contempt and scorn like a cornered snake. Get close enough and she'll poison you with a virulent cynicism for which there is no known antidote. Why even bother to argue that it's fiction, that Sasha Jensen, the narrator of "Good Morning, Midnight" isn't Jean Rhys herself, telling us straight out what life has been like for her? Read her biography and the events of her life and fiction coalesce; they blend far more exactly than they do for most authors. 

"One day, quite suddenly, when you're not expecting it, I'll take a hammer from the folds of my dark cloak and crack your little skull like an egg-shell. Crack it will go, the egg-shell; out they will stream, the blood, the brains. One day, one day...the fierce wolf that walks by my side will spring on you and rip your abominable guts out. One day, one day...Now, now, gently, quietly, quietly..."

It's unnerving to read passages of such seething rage from any serious writer, but it's even more shocking, more unexpected, when these lines are penned by a woman. Not that women don't feel this way, surely they do, but if they do, they aren't supposed to admit it. Neither are men, for that matter, but we aren't quite as shocked by it when they do. Right there alongside Celine, Miller, Genet, Burroughs, Houellebecq and Bukowski, put Jean Rhys. She is nothing if not willing to say what it is not permitted to say.   

Faites comme les autre. That, Rhys declares, has been her motto all her life. "Do as the other." In other words, life is lived in enemy territory. Survival is a matter of camouflage. Pantomime normality. You must appear to fit in at all costs—or pay the consequences. Let them see you're different and you're finished. They'll start hurling stones. They'll crush you like a bug. 

"Please, please, monsieur et madame, mister, missis and miss, I am trying so hard to be like you. I know I don't succeed, but look how hard I try. Three hours to choose a hat; every morning an hour and a half trying to make myself look like everybody else...And, mind you, I know that with all this I don't succeed. Or I succeed in flashes only...But think how hard I try...Think—and have a bit of pity. That is, if you ever think, you apes, which I doubt." 

I laughed out loud reading this last line. Because she's right. Most people don't ever think. They simulate thinking; they furrow their brows, they scratch their scalps, they stroke their jaws. But they don't actually think. They never have a single original thought. You wonder if they are actually even alive in any meaningful sense of that term.

Nonetheless, Rhys's ape dig is more a compensatory cry of defiance than it is a lamentation over the paucity of critical thinking. For if this is the Planet of the Apes, then the apes have always been the winners. In the preceding lines she reveals the deep psychological scars left as result of a lifetime of efforts trying to be like others. One is left wondering. What comes first? Being born an outsider and developing out of sheer self-defence a necessary scorn for the insiders? Or is the other way round?  Does one start on the inside like everyone else and gradually develop a consciousness of and contempt for conformity that eventually drives one to make the choice to cast oneself outside society more or less deliberately, to become an outsider?

Rhys seems divided. Her efforts to blend in with everyone else mask a part of herself that genuinely seems to wish it could be so. Yet the cost of belonging is to become an unthinking ape, or, as she says elsewhere, a "walking tree." Does she really want that? It would amount to a suicide-in-life; she would exist as one of the walking dead. In the end, its this very schism that leads her to acts of chronic self-sabotage, that undermines her best efforts to fit in, and that ultimately marks her as someone who doesn't and will never belong. And still it abides: this basic human need to fit in, to be accepted. It is the root cause her incurable suffering. 

"Good Morning, Midnight" reads with the immediacy of a blog. Every emotion is on display. Nothing is held back, nothing is too embarrassing to admit. Even as she hurls insults, she cries, literally, for love and attention, for the youth and beauty she has lost and will never regain. Now, after years spent chasing passion, sensation, and novelty,  she faces the aftermath of a "morning after" that will last another thirty years—unless she kills herself, which she seems to be constitutionally unable to do. Instead, she exists in a purgatory of depression, unable to go forward or backward. Here's her "life-plan:"

"I'll lie in bed all day, pull the curtains, and shut the damned world out...There was a monsieur, but the monsieur has gone. There was more than one monsieur, but they have all gone. What an assortment! One of every kind."

Her financial situation neatly accentuates and perpetuates this gray limbo. An unexpected albeit meagre inheritance provides her with just enough means to stay alive, if rather shabbily. Without this bequest, you get the sense that she might easily have ended up living on the streets, or at last becoming desperate enough to fling herself into the Seine. Life or death? It isn't a choice she makes: when she comes to the fork in the road between existence and non-existence she simply takes the path of least resistance. Now, living in reduced circumstances, she wants nothing more than to stay under the radar, where her poverty and fading looks won't show. If anything sustains her—perhaps it's better to say "entertains" her—it's a sense of the absurdity of her existence.

"When I think of my life it seems to me so comical that I have to laugh. It has taken me a long time to see how comical it has been, but I see it now."

She has reached a state of hyper-consciousness which she describes as being "plunged in a dream, when all the faces are masks and only the trees are alive and you can almost see the strings that are pulling the puppets. Close-ups of human nature-isn't it worth something?"

Our narrator has seen the carnival of life for the meaningless merry-go-round ride that it is and her fellow riders stripped to the bare bone. It isn't a pretty sight. This is life as it isn't meant to be seen. Under the pretty fictions we tell ourselves about "love" is the unadorned truth. Life is cruelty unbound. A dog-eat-dog pursuit of individual survival far too brutal to bear if one still cares, still believes in the fiction.

"People talk about the happy life, but the happy life is when you don't care any longer if you live or die. You only get there after a long time and many misfortunes. And do you think you are left there? Never. As soon as you have reached this heaven of indifference, you are pulled out of it. From your heaven you have to go back to hell. When you are dead to the world, the world often rescues you, if only to make a figure of fun of you."

And, sure enough, it is a man that "rescues" the narrator from her addiction to the blessed narcotic of indifference. One last suitor, who, ironically, plays the young gigolo to her older woman—a role reversal of the days when she played the ingenue to a series of older, financially secure men. Of course, our narrator sees the farcical nature of her situation and cynically plays her part, if only to wink jadedly at the audience, as if to say "You see how it is, don't you?" She also discovers a new-found power in her role; now she is the one who can control the game, withhold the rewards that a young lover seeks. The tragicomedy is that even knowing what she knows, she still can't help but grasp at what she clearly sees is the illusion of love, beauty, and desire that her young lover ostensibly offers, albeit at a price.

What does Rhys want anyway? She has led her life in a defiantly unorthodox way and now she complains that she is excluded from the status quo. She has never made any provisions for her future and has none stored up now that her future is now. She's burned the proverbial candle at both ends, living day by day, moment by moment, depending on her youth and beauty to see her through. Now she finds herself alone, poor, and aging. The party is over and one suspects that what she wanted most was for the party to never end. That she should always remain young and beautiful and therefore strong enough to thumb her nose at those who now looked down their noses at her. What she wanted was the impossible. 

And that is ultimately what "Good Morning, Midnight" chronicles. That moment of awakening when we realize that what we wanted most in life was impossible. That every awakening is a death and what follows is a period of mourning and morning. Rhys describes this transitional phase in all it's horror, pathos, and absurd comedy. Everything is at stake when nothing seems to matter. Do we give up and die once and for all or somehow begin a new life? That is the question that faces the narrator of "Good Morning, Midnight" during her long dark night of the soul. 

It's a question we all face in one form or another, sooner or later, and not just once, but many times. The answer we give each time defines our lives. 

Rhys's answer will certainly not satisfy everyone. But it allowed her to continue. And from one perspective, at least, namely one's own, to continue is the most important thing of all.    

=mail art received=

(stitching by Amy Irwen; background by Erica Durante)

(this is actually a one-piece fold-out booklet using a strip from a Chinese take-out menu)

::Amy Irwen, Rosemount, MN::

I actually said the words "wow" and "how beautiful" out loud when removing these pieces from the envelope. The stitching, which can't be fully appreciated in these scans, is delicately beautiful in itself. The textures of the fabrics, which certainly can't be appreciated visually, are a reminder that though a picture may be worth a thousand words, it still leaves crucial information out, still can't replace—even truly replicate—the act of "being-there."

I'll certainly be trying something of my own along these lines very soon—which is the highest expression of praise that I can give an artist: I want to incorporate the beauty of this work into my own & thereby make it a part of myself, have it inform what I create.