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Monday, December 28, 2015

=blackjack (16)=

=book recently read: A History of the Imagination by Norman Lock=

What is this novel about? Quite frankly, I don't know. In the tradition of the best sorts of novels, I don't think its "about" anything in particular. It's thoroughly "novel." Ostensibly it's a kind of picaresque adventure following an unnamed narrator who embarks on a journey to Africa at the beginning of the 20th century. He is searching for meaning and certainty in a world that seems on the verge of apocalyptic changes. It's a little like "Gulliver's Travels" on better hallucinogenics. Like Swift, Lock is cruelly satiric. And very funny

I'd never heard of Norman Lock before. This is a crying shame. He's 65, so it's not like he's just burst onto the scene. How could I have missed him?! Well, for one thing, he's publishing novels and short stories out of very small presses without the greatest of distribution and no fanfair that I ever detected. But that's really no excuse. I should have heard of him through the grapevine. What's the matter with my grapevine?  If I hadn't wasted such a big chunk of my life…well, let's not even go there. As they say, better late than never. (But is that true? If it's never, then you'd never know what you'd missed; you don't end up kicking yourself, etc.) As it is, it might well have been never if I hadn't discovered this book shelved out of order. I was kneeling on the floor of a Goodwill used bookstore in Tallahassee, Florida, on Christmas Eve, looking through the "s" section. Maybe Santa Claus put it there for me. Later, doing a little internet investigation, I found out something about Norman Lock. You, too, can find out something about him here:
Norman Lock

A partial list of characters that pop in and out of this novel:

Prince Kong (before he became King)
Sigmund Freud
Enrico Caruso
Anna Pavlova
Raymond Roussel
Teddy Roosevelt
Henri Matisse
Thomas Edison

The narrative is fractured, self-conscious, and meta to the max. Time and space are violated frequently—and joyously. Lock acknowledged his "crimes" against the conventional when he has conformity's Cosa Nostra pay him a fictional warning visit. They attempt to strong-arm him back to the storytelling version of the straight-and-narrow.

The delegation arrived to protest my "utter disregard of reality as it is commonly understood." I argued muscularly for my point of view, but they soon pinned me down. Waving a sheaf of soiled pages under my nose, they demanded immediate and unconditional redaction—"or else."

"Or else what?" I asked.

"We disavow all knowledge of you, repudiate any publications that may result from your present commission (though God knows who would be mad enough to publish such idiocies!), and, as final proof of our disdain—we cut off your legs."

"That last part seems a bit extreme," I said, ignoring the saw that was being sharpened for my rehabilitation.

"It will show the world you haven't a leg to stand on in these fantastic alterations of the truth."

"Define 'truth,'" I challenge, but they would not.

Instead, they set about to shake some sense into me. They did so until my back ached.

Growing tired or bored at last, they unpinned me from the ground. I rose, clapped the dust from my hands, and left for Mombasa without a word.

The intimidation fails and Lock continues on his merry, rule-breaking way.

There is something reminiscent of William S. Burroughs in Lock's dry, sardonic, pseudo-academic tone—but it's a Burroughs without the xxx-rated homoeroticism, without the scatology, without the violence, without the obscene language.

Consider what our narrator discovers when he visits The City of Radiant Objects:

Chairs will float if one has never thought of sitting on them.

The sea in itself is not in the least frightening. It is only the idea of drowning that makes it so.

Lock writes as if chairs could indeed float—and as if he could too. He writes with no fear of drowning in the torrent of narrative chaos that he gleefully unleashes. Anything can happen and anyone can show up on any page of "The History of the Imagination." This is what a book—in particular, a novel—should be.

Another partial list of characters that pop in and out of this novel:

Albert Einstein
The Wright Brothers
Florenz Ziegfeld
Charles Darwin
H.G. Wells
Igor Stravinsky
The Invisible Man

In the course of his adventures, our hero learns the formula for raising the dead but discovers that the dead are resentful of the disturbance; they prefer to remain dead. He's there to witness the erection of Eiffel's second, even more magnificent, albeit invisible tower. He has a knock down, drag out fight with God Almighty Himself. He murders Sigmund Freud. He sails off into the North Atlantic to slay icebergs in revenge for the sinking of the Titanic—but ends up falling in love with the icy behemoths of the sea. And that, as the saying goes, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Actually, I think I know what this novel is about, after all. It's really no mystery. Lock tells us what it is about:

Mine is a history of possibilities. I write of possible encounters with the unknown. Time is richer than you suppose. You imagine it as a succession of singular moments like a string of pearls. I see it as the night sky with its countless stars.

Lock doesn't mince words, though he could if he wanted. You get the sense that he could frappe and stir-fry them as well. That he could make a bicycle or a tasty sandwich out of words, if he chose.

What can be imagined, is. The movements of the brain, the heart—the landscape of the body and desire—these are worth setting down. We're all creations. The products of desire. And imagination is a precondition of desire.

Later, he says:

There is another history. There is another history that exists side by side with the one you know. In it all that I have told you is true. (You have never heard of it? You are reading it here: A History of the Imagination.)

You say: But such a history is a figment!

I say to you: All histories lie.

Am I insane?

I wonder.

And I don't care.

In other words, Lock can create his own world. Each of us can. Does that make us delusional? To whom? To the people who are creating the authorized version of the world? To the masses who, lacking sufficient imagination and daring of their own, accept by default the official version? Who gives a damn what they think? Well, so many do. Do you? You don't have to. You can sign your own Declaration of Imaginative Independence and secede from the mass delusion. Do you dare? The King will be angry and you'll be charged with treason, betraying the official version of reality. A capital crime, I should add. 

Norman Lock has become, virtually overnight, one of my favorite authors. One good thing about coming to him so late is that, minus A History of the Imagination, I still have his entire oeuvre ahead of me. What might I have become if I had stumbled upon his work earlier? There's no way to tell. As Will Rogers advised on a recent coaster I was given along with a glass of ice water: "Don't let yesterday use up too much of today." There's nothing to be gained by lamenting all those Norman Lock-less years—and, a happier thought, still so much to read.

=100 pieces of garbage=

=100 pieces of garbage=

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

=on rejection=

=book recently read:The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto=

Apparently Haruki Murakami is a fan of Banana Yoshimoto and after reading "The Lake" I can understand why. She writes just like him. At least, she does in this novel. 

Her narrator, Chihiro, could be a female version of just about any of Murakami's first-person male narrators. She's a level-headed, earnest, goodnatured sort, not without her troubles and foibles, but they don't get in the way of her being a basically decent and understanding person. Chihiro is an artist of self-described modest talent, an everyday average sort of person, again, sharing this self-proclaimed "everyman" identification with many of Murakami's "I" narrators. She's mainly employed painting murals of innocuously pleasant subjects for clients who just want to pretty-up the odd drab, nondescript wall. As Chihiro sees it, she's not creating great Art, that's beyond her skill; instead, she's content to make the world a brighter, more cheerful place in her own small way, even if only temporarily. 

Nakajima, the man to whom she finds herself inexplicably drawn, is a mystery—as are, conversely, most of the major female characters in a Murakami novel. Nakajima is a brilliant, but boyishly naive student of genetic science. Severely introverted, physically frail, and sex-phobic to boot, he's something of a  lost soul, floating detached and seemingly disembodied through a world he seems willingly capable of leaving at any moment. Something terrible happened to him in the past that has ripped him from the rootedness that hold most ordinary people to life. 

But what happened to Nakajima as a child he won't or can't talk about—and Chihiro won't push him. Her delicacy of feeling in this regard is very much like that displayed by any number of Murakami's "heroic" male characters. They, too, never force a confidence or an issue, but remain the paragons of patience and benevolent passivity, content to let events and people unfold naturally, in their own time. Maybe, Chihiro considers, she doesn't even want to know what happened to Nakajima. If she knew, it might change everything. And, for the time being, at least, things are good. She thinks she may be falling in love with him. Why force him to dredge up the ugliness of his former life and ruin what sweetness they have?

Of course, the past must be dealt with sooner or later. And that supplies the suspense that drives the reader through this short, lightly written, but deceptively complex and challenging novel. 

The fact is that Chihiro is damaged goods, too. She is still mourning the recent death of her mother, who was the hostess/owner of a bar, an occupation of dubious morality, to say the least, as seen by polite Japanese society. As such, Chihiro had a difficult, unconventional childhood of her own. The question that Yoshimoto poses—and resolves—is whether these two misfits can possibly make a life together. And if so, how.

Chihiro tries to define for herself, and the reader, what it is that so captivates her about Nakajima, a man who, by any other measure, is everything the opposite of what she seeks in a partner. This is what she comes up with:

We keep our gazes fixed, day after day, on the things we want to see. But sometimes we encounter people like Nakajima who compel us to remember it all. He doesn't have to say or do anything in particular; just looking at him, you find yourself face-to-face with the enormousness of the world as a whole. Because he doesn't try to live in just a part of it. Because he doesn't avert his gaze. He makes me feel like I've suddenly awakened, and I want to go on watching him forever. That, I think, is what it is. I'm awed by his terrible depths.

It's hard to believe that Yoshimoto hasn't been influenced by Murakami nor is it an insult to say her work is strongly reminiscent of his, especially when it's executed so well. Ultimately the same persuasive atmosphere of magic and danger imbues Yoshimoto's fictional world.When we finally learn what happened to Nakajima the horror is a lot more ambiguous and nuanced than what we might have feared. And for that reason, it comes as a complete, if somewhat anti-climactic surprise. But, in some ways, what happened to Nakajima is even more horrifying for being so perfectly human. 

In Yoshimoto's world, as in Murakami's, the mystery, the magic, and especially the horrors, are those of everyday life. Both authors are showing us that the closer we look at the actual real world around us the more fantastical and irrational it reveals itself to be. There is a hidden-in-plain-sight pataphysical element about the world and human life that Yoshimoto and Murakami take pains to reveal in their fiction, which is to say, that theirs is a world of exceptions. Exceptions that don't merely prove the rule, but prove to be the rule itself. Everything—and everyone—is an exception.

A friend and fellow survivor of Nakajima's tells Chihiro: 

Thanks for painting us. Thanks so much for seeing, the first time you met us, that even though we're like ghosts, even though we're not supposed to exist, we are alive.

The reader, too, might use these very words to thank Banana Yoshimoto for seeing with such clarity and charity the ghostly, orphaned, homeless parts within each of us and treating them with so much love and sympathy, but most of all, material reality. 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

=category 9=

=a short history of krampus=

=book recently read: The Ask by Sam Lipsyte=

This is a fun & funny novel, an intelligent satire on contemporary times that still manages to say something serious in spite of all its exaggeration and slapstick. Milo Burke is a failed painter of middling talent with still lingering fantasies of artistic grandeur. Instead of art world mega-celebrity, he's stuck in a bourgeoisie life with an uninterested wife, a time-consuming kid, and a desultory job at a third-rate university. He works in "development." What's that mean? He's one of those guys who calls up super-wealthy people who might want to ease their conscience or, more likely, inflate their ego by making an endowment to higher education, in particular, that endangered branch of it known as "the liberal arts." By the end of the first chapter, Milo manages to get himself fired by losing his cool & insulting the wrong student, the spoiled daughter of one of the school's more influential patrons. But no sooner is chapter two over when he gets an unexpected chance to redeem himself. An old friend from Milo's own college days, the scion of a wealthy family, is thinking of making a big bequest—a "give"—but on one condition: that Milo do "the ask." 

And so Milo is back on the case, in a probationary capacity, but as it turns out there's more to what his old friend wants than merely a chance to be charitable. There's an illegitimate child involved, now grown into a disgruntled, disabled Iraqi war veteran who's making not-so-veiled threats to emerge from the shadows and spoil daddy's new life. For Milo, there are old grudges to settle: there is infidelity, there are issues with his dead, no-good philanderer of a father, his very-much-alive lesbian libertine mother, and his diabolically cute, but preciously cruel four-year-old son.  As if that doesn't fill the plate, there's also Milo's donut addiction; his not-quite-but-pretty damn-close-to-it substance abuse problem, his porn problem, his anger issues, his resentment issues, and, of course, now there are his money-shortage and unemployment issues. Milo, in other words, is in desperate straits.

As noted, Lipsyte is a very funny writer. So funny he can't seem to help tacking on a lot of scenes that aren't really necessary to advance the story but serve as comic set-pieces for no other discernible purpose than to show off how funny he is. But you don't mind the superfluity so much because, well, as now noted twice already, he's really funny. His comic timing is syntactically flawless. The pages dissolve on your eyes like an ocular version of whipped cream. You're done before you know it…not quite full, but momentarily satisfied. It's not Schopenhauer or Foucault but Lipsyte writes as if he's read those guys and as if he trusts that there's a good possibility you may have read those guys, too. Or seen their books lying around at a friend's house. Or at least heard their names mentioned in passing during a lecture you weren't paying any attention to. In short, he's not afraid of insulting your intelligence by assuming you have any or losing your attention by writing as if you're not a total moron.

Here's something he says towards the end of the book—a little bit of heartfelt, practical philosophy in the midst of all the madcap humor—that's particularly apt for our "terrorist times," a bracing antidote to all that "freedom-isn't-free-so-get-your-legs-blown-off- for-the-stars-and-stripes" bullshit so popular nowadays:

Here's what you need to know: The boy can walk away from the ogre's castle. He doesn't have to knock. Some people will tell you that it's better the boy get hurt or even die than never know whether he could have defeated the ogre and won the ogre's treasure. But those are the people who tell us stories to keep us slaves.

For those who think the point of life is to hoard as much of the pie as possible and everyone else be damned—and who among us hasn't been subjected to this message, practically the state religion of capitalism—he  offers this counter-intuitive advice:

Squander it. Always squander it. Give it all away. Whatever it is. Squander it. Don't save a little part of you inside yourself. Not even a scrap. It gets tainted in there. It rots.

Bonus points to Lipsyte for writing a novel about a father's love for his four-year-old son that doesn't turn into emotional slush. For writing about a hapless white male without turning him into a total schlemiel. Milo is as clueless and ineffectual as any Woody Allen schmo, but he's also got some fight in him still, some redemptive, righteous bitterness, and a core of integrity that keeps him from being a total kickball. Kudos, too, for writing on that tightrope between sarcasm and sentimentality, which requires courage, skill, and discipline; courage not to deny sentiment entirely and become coldly cynical—after all, we're sentimental creatures;  skill and discipline which are both necessary to maintain one's balance and avoid the temptation to abandon oneself to the bottomless abyss of bathos. And, finally, props for ending "The Ask" not with a cloying "love me please" whimper but, quite literally, a bang.

If nothing else, Lipsyte proves that the lost art of writing a deadly serious comic novel for a widespread audience is not entirely lost. "The Ask" is subversion and diversion for the vanguard of the masses, pointed cultural critique and low comedy in one happy-go-lucky package, not-quite-mindless entertainment for the slumming revolutionary of the quietest—and most effective—revolution of all: the one that takes place between your ears. 


Avenue K. Midwood, Brooklyn

=100 pieces of garbage=