Middle Countries

Tiger of the Sea

Good Bad Dream

“Dreams from Bunker Hill” by John Fante is a beautifully-written story about writing and love-relationships.  (I’m not sure how the two themes intersect exactly but I get the feeling they do.)  It follows Arturo Bandini as he careens around Los Angelos trying to simultaneously find the focus and inspiration to write and general respect as adult human being.  (Maybe the intersection is found in the fact that these two things are diametrically opposed for Fante. More on this later.)  Bandini works as an editor of short-stories and as a studio and freelance screen-writer but finds both occupations creatively suffocating.  (As an editor, he’s forced to condone bad writing, as a studio screen-writer, sit on his hands day-in-day-out waiting for a project to be passed along from the studio boss whose only goal in hiring him seems to have been to not let his competitors do the same, and as a freelance screenwriter, capitulate to the Hollywood rumour-mill and celebrity-mongering.)  Throughout his ordeals he falls in love with terrible rapidity and intensity, causing harm to himself and those he encounters.  He does manage to have an almost healthy relationship with the old woman – Mrs. Brownwell – at his rooming house, but ultimately botches that too.  The story ends with his finally being able to sit down and write like he’d like to. 

It’s hard to say whether or not Bandini is the hero of the book.  Certainly, he’s a flawed one if he is.  Mrs. Brownwell is definitely more noble but receives less attention from the author.  Perhaps what Fante is arguing is that bad characters are more lively and interesting as writing subjects.  And, because fiction writing is so often auto-biographical, it’s part of the process as a writer to put oneself in bad circumstances – if not become a bad character.  The better question is whether making one’s life a subject for art at the same time obfuscates the self-respect and decency that everyone craves.  Arguably, no one is entirely noble whatever their vocation and the edge between ‘profession’ and ‘person’ always bleeds into and taints the other.  Notwithstanding the discomfort of the question, it’s worth asking and Fante posits it bravely, without a trace of self-pity. 

Of course, I’m probably over-looking a lot of historical factors in my analysis, not to mention, the book is part of a series of five and I’ve only read three.  What’s incontrovertible is that Fante’s writing is first rate.  It’s energetic but thoughtful.  The only possible knock on it is it may eschew profundity a bit, but this is certainly preferable to the opposite.  Overall, an exciting read and well worth the price of admission unless it includes Fante’s personal respect.  For me, if he wrote this at the cost of his close relationships, then it falls short.  All books do.     

Mao’s Blues

Don Delillo’s “Mao II” is a provocative read.  Similar to “Libra” and “White Noise”, it’s a book driven mostly by mood and theme although the characters are vivid and engaging, and the plot, suspenseful. 

The book opens at a mass wedding at Yankee Stadium and closes with an individual, tank-guarded one in Beirut.  My interpretation of this is that Delillo thinks private, personal events and their meanings are disappearing, that they’re being sequestered to warring and impoverished places.  There are other events in the book that speak to the idea of mass culture and critiques of it, but I blanking on them.  Trust me when I say the reader is certainly lead to the side of criticism, although the book doesn’t altogether dismiss the values and logic of consumer-capitalist society.  To wit, Delillo spends large sections skewering communist China and terrorist groups as iconographers and assimilators in different clothes.

Overall I loved “Mao II” for the same reasons I loved “Libra”: it painted a typically vilified phenomenon – terrorism – as multi-faceted.  It showed that however misguided those murderers are, they’re engaged in a pervasive and difficult issue, namely, how to make the world a cooperative group yet respectful of individuality and cultural differences. 

 On that point, I hated this book.  Like “Libra”, “Mao II” offers little in terms of a way out.  (Caveat:  I know that this is not the job of a novelist to do, but it’s still a bit of a disappointment.)  Perhaps by ending the story at a wedding guarded by a tank, Delillo is suggesting, yes, resist the mainstream but preserve small group rituals and activities.  This seems like a happy enough compromise, but then why does it still leave me so unhappy?  Is there no chance for consistency in modern life? 

 Well, thanks Don.  You’ve succeeded at terrorizing me, contrary to your claim that this power had become the exclusive property of zealots with bombs.  That shows Abu Rashid, The Father and Coca-cola you’re still kicking.  And for what it’s worth, I’m glad you are.  

Paul the Writer

I picked up Paul’s letter to the Corinthians because of Vince Vaughan.  I was watching “Wedding Crashers” and at one point the character he plays said that the priest at the wedding they were at was going to recite a verse from first Corinthians.  I was disgusted that this base comedy was better read than me so I reached for my bookshelf. 

I liked Corinthians more than any of the gospels I’ve read (Jude, Ecclesiastes, Luke and Revelations).  The first part is dry and preachy but the second picks up a lot.  It blends narrative with expansive moral philosophy rather than simply cataloging pious rules like I’ve found is customary of the other apostles.  Paul writes much better than his peers referencing actual people, places and events, constructing a forceful story rather feigning authority and judgment.  Here are a few demonstrative examples: 

“…with open face beholding…”,”…the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”, “We walk by faith, not by sight.”, “…by love unfeigned…be ye enlarged.”,“…what fellowship has righteousness with unrighteousness?  What communion hath light with darkness?” and “…be perfect, be of one mind…the God of love and peace.”

To be completely honest I might have been a bit swept up in Paul’s writing and forgotten to read critically for content (he uses the words “exhortation” and “lasciviousness” completely naturally).   To this point, I omitted a verse contradicting one of the above-mentioned ones.  “…If any man trust to himself that he is Christ’s, let him of himself think again, that, as he is Christ’s, even so are we Christ’s,” Paul writes.  This would appear to be completely the opposite of his stance on righteousness/unrighteousness fellowship.  

I’ll ask a real theologian some time about the contradiction but from a writer’s perspective – albeit a fiction writer’s one – the work still sings.  It’s vivid and engaging.  It’s hard to read Corinthians and not feel like you’re in the Roman Empire at the time of Paul watching a new ideology – one based on personal merit rather than rank and power – sweep up the eastern coast of the Mediterranean to exaltation of the people.  Corinthians – the second part at least – is cheerful and uplifting compared to the other, more pedantic gospels.      

The Monster of Jealousy

“…now I’ve got in full bloom the monster of jealousy green as in any cliché cartoon rising in my being.”

-Jack Kerouac, The Subterraneans

Jack Kerouac’s “The Subterraneans” didn’t grab me too much but I think it’s worth commenting on for posterity’s sake. 

I admire the book – and Kerouac – for their courage to take on a difficult subject:  ill-destined love.  While Kerouac’s moral compass is more broken here than in any of his other books, he’s not responsible for all the flaws of humanity.  His protagonist here, a young writer named Percipied, has no faith in love yet seeks it out relentlessly.  His love-interest, Mardou, is a victim of his insecurity and fickleness.  (She wasn’t originally interested in him but she takes up with him all-the-same so she isn’t entirely blameless for the tragedy which unfolds.)   

I don’t have a lot more to say with regard to the plot of “The Subterraneans” except that it’s a little predictable.  What’s very novel about the book is its style.  Kerouac abandons all conventional prose with his lack of line separation and erratic punctuation.  It’s an ode to “Finnegan’s Wake” with Americanized content, and definitely an interesting aesthetic experience.     

But Kerouac’s star, at this point, is fading.  As the primary witness to the Beats, he couldn’t help but do so as the movement succumbed to shallow thrill-seeking in lieu of a moral and counter-mainstream-culture example of how to live more compassionately and contently.

Regardless of the final outcome, I will always love Kerouac for his valiant attempts at utopia, ill-destined as they may have been.  I’m already looking forward to reading his first novel, “The Town and The City.”    

Dave’s Work

I read Dave Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again:  Essays and Arguments’ because I want to say I’ve completed his oeuvre.  I’ve read his three novels and part of his book of short stories, but I found this book harder to read than any of his fiction.  Each of Wallace’s seven essays are varyingly complex and worthy of comment in themselves but I want to analyze the book as a whole in order to try to better understand Wallace’s worldview and philosophy, of which there are overt suggestions towards in “Pale King”, but which seem a bit simplistic, and are of questionable authenticity given the fact the book’s final form was assembled from notes after his death. 

“A Supposedly Fun Thing…” is thematically closer to “Infinite Jest”, I think.  The over all message is there are many layers to life – and art – distilling one all-encompassing philosophy or approach is difficult.  In the namesake essay, there is this sense of the certainty of uncertainty.  The essay describes Wallace’s experience on a luxury cruise in the Caribbean.  Wallace makes no effort to hide his disdain for the overzealous advertisement claims of the cruises brochure and messaging, how rapturous it is to be on a cruise as compared to workaday living.  Oddly, however, in the end, the cruise succeeds in relaxing Wallace to his workaday life, albeit, indirectly.  What the piece concludes is we learn what we’ve got, what’s important and joyful, by its absence.  It’s a trite, almost cliche observation but one we need to be reminded of in our mainstream culture which presumes the ultimate goal in life should be to do nothing and have extreme material comforts.  Human beings like work and stress, yet toil tirelessly to eradicate them.

A similar theme can be picked up on in E Unibus Pluram, a counter argument to cultural commentators who say TV is the ruin of civilization, and then in Tennis Player Michael Joyce...  Roughly put, E Unibus Pluram outlines how TV is a symptom of various social/existential problems, but not the problem itself.  Wallace argues that one of the underlying reasons for the success of TV is the failures and infighting of the literary community.  Wallace posits that fiction has become too self-conscious and amoral to provide readers with meaning.  Whatever the philosophical justifications for this trend may be, its offshoot is that people have flocked to TV where they can suspend disbelief and believe in a happy ending without being mocked for it.  Wallace, in the end calls for a revival of the ‘single-entendre’, the unsarcastic author who naively, childishly observes and doesn’t judge.  It’s similar to the cruise argument – uncomplicated work and escape are interconnected human needs:  A certain fact of uncomplicated work is that it’s banal, and, therefore, why we look for escape, a place where we feel special, important, insightful and more fully alive.

In Tennis Player Michael Joyce… the work-escape argument is taken a step further.  In it, Wallace suggests that the deeper you can get into work or mode of life—uncomplicated, trivial or banal, as it may be—the more you’ve ultimately escaped meaninglessness.  In this piece, however, he uses the words, “transcendence” and “virtue”, and the term, ‘accessing parts of the psyche others will never dream of’.   Psychologists might say ‘self-actualization.’

It’s possible I’m way off on these interpretations.  They’re complicated ideas, and Wallace is at times a complicated writer.  I’m still struggling to place he himself in the literary community he somewhat shirked.  What does he other so-called post-modern writers represent?  Hemingway was brutally and beautifully honest about the destruction and possible salvation; Salinger unmasked the hypocrisies of society and sometimes, family; and Kerouac tried to chart a new, more spiritual direction  mainstream America. 

I’m not sure about Delillo but I think Wallace should be most renowned for his scathing cultural commentary and attempts to scale human and social complexity.  It’s perhaps a late American existentialism he embodies.  Life is off-and-on again meaningless, but depending on how well you can pay attention to the world, including the many avenues of escaping it, there’s hope through honesty and work.  

Cheaterers

I cheated.  I read a few sentences of the introduction to Dubliners as I sat down to think about the book.  It’s an interesting side story as to why I did – in general I think you should decide for yourself what a piece of writing or art means – but I won’t go into that here.

The sentences from the introduction spoke to the fact that Dubliners was a banned book when it was released.  It’s odd by today’s standards to think so not just because it is a widely lauded work of literature, but because the apparently scandalous subject matter of Dubliners is hunky-dory compared to what’s come since. (Burroughs anyone?) 

That said there is still something unsettling about Dubliners.  I believe it is to do with the juxtaposition of its Victorian prose and Modern content.  Dubliners explores grafting, drinking, gambling, poverty, and lust using sometimes ornate and aristocratic language.  It remains troubling, whatever the literary landscape to think of how little – or nothing inherently – separates educated, civilized people from their counterparts.

Dubliners is remarkable for more reasons than this.  Joyce’s vision is profound without being sentimental.  He regards the highest and lowest echelons of society with equal scrutiny and humanity.  (Perhaps this is another reason we still find Dubliners troubling:  Who among us is not prone to romanticizing one class against another?)  It contains stories that are unsurpassable plot-wise:  A Painful Case is a beautifully tragic meditation on the ethics of love; The Dead is rigourous detailing of patriotism, marriage and romantic existentialism.  Special mention also goes out to An Encounter, Ivy Day in The Committee Room, A Little Cloud and Counterparts.

There’s a lot more to say about Dubliners, but I can’t say it resonated with me as much as Ulysses, Portrait or passages of Finnegan’s.  This could be because it was the last of the Joyce’s oeuvre I read, or because it was the first of his he wrote.  (Aside:  I’m aware of the fallibility of comparing short stories and novels, but we’re a fallen race, as Joyce might say.)  I believe it’s the later.  Dubliners displays craftsmanship unmatched by many others, but doesn’t reach the heights of Joyce’s other works in terms of poetry or depth.  Worthy of reading still, to say the least.  

La nuit fonce

I didn’t like Journey to The End of The Night, Voyage au bout de la nuit.   I had high expectations, having been told by a trusted friend it reminded her – like all great writing – to live. 

At first, my friend’s claim seemed valid. The opening chapter of Voyage is as vivid and exciting as any voice I’ve read or heard.  Celine’s dialogue-centred passages throughout the book are remarkable.  For instance, the aforementioned section is a conversation between two medical students, one of whom is the narrator, over the merits and shortcomings of early 20th century French society.  The narrator we quickly learn, is a caustic yet intelligent skeptic.  His and his friend’s views over the importance of the ethno-national state span all of what I was being taught in liberal arts courses and beer halls seventy years later, all within six short pages, the difference with Celine being, his character was able to expose his opponents hypocrisy through meaningful action - enlisting in the army.

From here on I was disappointed with Voyage.  It never regained the strength and verve of the opening scene, in my opinion.  A large part of this I’m sure is because I speak French and was reading an English translation.  For some reason I find airy, romantic statements, which Voyage is ironically prone to making, more appealing in the exclusively latin tongue.  It’s probably because English has no declarative verb-tense which makes subjective judgments falsely appear as objective facts.  It’s no wonder France birthed the twentieth centuries best philosophies:  its language is given to sweeping statements with recourse.

Some of Celine’s sweeping statements are straight and true as German steel, while others are hypocritical and mean.  His bits on the role of public education in politics is spot on, as are his reflections on the value of honest recollection of deviousness.  In more lyrical places either the translation or the logic is amiss.  The most glaringly obvious one, the one which the Voyage is titled after, has to do with night.  Celine infers that the night, and specifically, the end of it, is what ‘scares the bastards most.’  He never really elaborates better on this pan-human fear.  I think he means our mundane, workaday existence which, nightly, we rekindle with optimism by going to sleep and by expecting ‘things will be better in the morning.’   It’s a harsh assessment of life if a true one.  In the end, I think Voyage is a war story.  It shows that part of the terrorism of war is that it makes life afterwards a shockingly trivial experience.  If not, Voyage is deeply cynical and incomplete.  For one, I never felt I got to the end of the night, save an image of a tugboat and barges on the banks of the Seine. But then, maybe that’s the point.  

Dio carne

I picked up the first of John Fante’s Auturo Bandini books, Wait Until Spring, Bandini, for a couple reasons.  First, I loved the third book of the series of four, Ask The Dusk, which was given to me by a friend on my birthday.  Second, the title appealed to me at a time in my life when I was in need of waiting.

…Bandini is a straight-forward book, not as good as Ask The Dusk, but certainly worth reading.  It at times lacks a concrete problem to unwind but Fante’s adept pen carries the reader along all-the-same.  Also, it’s a marvel of a book by the fact that it incorporates so many central characters in a single narrative.  It truly feels like all the members of the Bandini family are represented, not props on any single person’s stage. 

If there is is a single recurring theme to …Bandini it’s Svevo’s refrain, ‘Dio carne’ - God is a dog.  On one level, it’s a cynical statement made by a downtrodden, bitter man, but, on another, it’s an optimist’s cry.  The Bandinis surely have a greater deal of problems than most - including ones which are self-inflicted - but life, to Fante is nuanced.  Sure it can be a snarling, rabid beast, but it is also, at times, a loyal companion.