Tuesday, December 28, 2010

2011 Reading Resolutions: I Aspire

Like most hopeful and ambitious readers, I always have a teetering stack of books that I'm either reading or planning to read. The stack operates as an ongoing reading resolution throughout the year—and a reminder that life is exciting with infinite possibilities that are damnably constricted by too little time.

That said, to echo the motto Truman Capote jotted in his boyhood journal, "I aspire," here's a brief rundown of my reading aspirations for 2011. Just because it's that time of year.

1) Desert, by J.M.G. LeClezio (because after reading two novels of his I'm doggedly trying to figure out why he won the Nobel)

2) Barthes by Barthes (and other Barthes because I like to revisit one thinker who's influenced me each year)

3) Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch (because it's on my list every year and I know I'll never read it, so I want to be buried with the book in my hand)

4) Dusk by James Salter (Salter is one of those masters who is like a friend, so I have to get together with him regularly and relish his way of seeing the world)

5) Break It Down by Lydia Davis (as with Salter, I could read Lydia Davis for a lifetime just trying to figure out how to write the perfect short short story)

6) The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch (I loved the Poetry Foundation's podcast on Koch featuring the brilliant, lively, spirted Dean Young)

7) Fear of Dreaming by Jim Carroll (because I have a strange affection for junkie literature)

8) 2666 by Roberto Bolano (Bolano, bien sur)

9) Just Kids by Patti Smith (two artists in NYC in the early '70s is irresistable)

10) Logicomix (a graphic novel with some serious thoughts at its core—I need cartoons to guide any intellectual endeavors)

11) Everyday Drinking by Kingsley Amis (essays about drinking meant to be read while drinking, which should be easy to accomodate)

12) The Curtain by Milan Kundera (just because I've read everything else by Kundera)

13) Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes (death must be recognized, always)

I'll stop at 13--because of its fate as a number, and I'll be lucky to read even a book a month this year. Ah for the days of yore when I literally structured my daily life so that the best hours could be spent reading and writing. Then I turned 30.

One resolution that's not on my list is to explore a different literary magazine each week or so. I've discovered so many good new ones this year—all of them online mags, which seem more lively and interesting than the old standby print journals. Smokelong, Pank, Word Riot, Frigg, Used Furniture Review....

Let me know a few of your reading resolutions in the comments below.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Reading Camus: Falling into a Life of Contradictions

A friend of mine once told me that she read Camus because he made her happy.

I loved that statement because it’s not the obvious answer for reading a thinker known for plumbing the darkest of the dark states of human existence.

But reading Camus makes me happy as well—or if not happy, then reassured somehow—simply because he writes with such dead-on truth, unflinching and straightforward, without pretense or unnecessary contrivance, without aggrandizement yet with dramatic flair, nuance, and poetry—traits that many other writers from the existentialist all-star team don’t possess to such a degree.

For example, much of Sartre’s writing is fueled by a preening display of intellectual bravado, a showing off of labyrinthine reasoning made more obtuse by his predilection to write on amphetamines (some say Sartre started the tradition of philosophical obfuscation that culminated in the often impenetrable prose of postmodernists like Derrida).

Kierkegaard, despite the trembling depths of his passionate opposition to all conventions of group think, is still quite beholden to his God. And Nietzsche is wonderful in his “will to power,” “God is dead” way, but presents more of a call to arms than the life-long probing of truth and daily life that Camus offers.

When I was 16, my brother came home from college and gave me The Stranger for a Christmas present. In retrospect, it might have been one of the best Christmas presents I’ve ever received. I remember how exotic and confrontational the very title of the novel was. It immediately made me a bit of a stranger as a result.

As a 16-year-old it was easy to feel like a stranger. What I didn’t know was that the feeling would go through so many different modulations over the course of a lifetime. And that there would never be a way to quite ever not feel like a stranger.

But that’s the contradiction Camus writes so well within—one as stranger to oneself, one as stranger to others, one as stranger to institutions and culture. We’re inherently dual creatures (at minimum), forever estranged.

As he put it, “An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.” That’s a brilliant definition—akin to Fitzgerald’s famous quote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

The mere fact of watching ourselves think is a step into estrangement even as it is a step toward something like deliverance because estrangement is a necessary way to make meaning. Life is an attempt to reconcile contradictions, per Fitzgerald’s take, despite the knowledge that the contradictions might be irreconcilable.

You might say that’s the joy, although some have said that’s the damnation as well. It’s all in the execution.

“He who despairs of the human condition is a coward, but he who has hope for it is a fool,” Camus wrote.

So we’re caught in a tangled skein of cowardice and foolishness. There’s no way out. Even the very premise of our existence comes with an oppositional force, a question. As he says in The Myth of Sisyphus, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.”

Our very birth calls for a reckoning with our existence—not only how to exist, but whether to exist. We breathe the air of contradiction.

I recently read The Fall, which brought all of the above thoughts into dramatic relief. The novel is written in a manner that I rarely encounter today: a series of dramatic monologues, or confessions, by Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a “judge-penitent”—perhaps the crucial phrase of the novel.

It’s interesting to me that I can’t think of a contemporary novel that uses confession as a narrative device in such an acute manner—it’s a technique that seems to have gone out of style. I wonder if it’s because we live in an age where we’re covering up the truth or manipulating it rather than confronting it—that is, writers are more skilled in the craft of writing narratives, whether it’s the contrivances of plot or the fulsome lyricism of detail, but less skilled in writing something so basic and straightforward as an exploration of truth.

The art of publishing has trumped the art of writing.

One could make the argument that memoirs function as confessions, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Although we’re certainly living in an age dominated by memoir, contemporary memoirs function more as tell-all stories—confrontational only in the sense of revealing shocking behavior (which isn’t even truly shocking anymore since shock has been exhausted), but not confrontational in the manner of a simple confession of the truth of one’s soul.

The confession at the heart of The Fall is what makes it still compelling 54 years after it was published (it was Camus’s last novel before he died in a car crash).

For one, the confession in The Fall implicates the reader. In fact, in addressing an undescribed listener, the reader acts as the “confessor.”

“A guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a confession,” Camus wrote.

All of Camus’s work operates as a confession, which is why his writing feels so much more honest than others to me. His guilt spawns his knowledge, his language.

However, in The Fall Clamence hasn’t done anything particularly bad. He’s a good man—or a man as good as most and better than many—but who because of his scrutiny, the power of his introspection, is stripped of action. The novel shows the self-damnation of thought in that we can’t escape our consciousness if we truly think about our actions. It’s a cautionary tale because Camus was above all a man of action—to read The Rebel is to be incited into action, in fact.

Clamence’s fall—evoking Adam’s fall—is that of knowledge, but a different kind of knowledge than Adam possessed from the simple disobedience of biting an apple. It is the knowledge of the fundamental nature of irreconcilable contradictions.

The story takes place in Amsterdam (below sea-level for a man who “never felt comfortable except in lofty places,” preferring buses to subways, open carriages to taxis, terraces to closed-in places, etc.) and in the red-light district, which used to be the Jewish quarter before World War II ("until our Hitlerian brethren spaced it out a bit. ... I am living on the site of one of the greatest crimes in history"). Clamence has fled from lofty Paris to search out a place to resemble the situation of his soul.

Yes, he's a dramatic one.

He has good manners, fine speech, and is well educated, “but frequents sailor bars.” It’s in such places that he can better recognize himself—a contrast to the more lofty places where he’s lived in mastery of life, a defense lawyer who admirably defends the poor, yet indulges in the advantages that his charm and station in life afford him, especially in matters of love.

He suffers three crucial moments of recognition in the novel: once as he strolls past a bridge and hears a splash in the Seine, but doesn’t deign to inconvenience himself to jump in and see if someone tried to commit suicide; later as he passes another bridge at night and hears laughter, which he momentarily thinks is directed at him as judgment; and finally in a moment of minor road rage where he almost resorts to violence.

In these three easily forgettable moments, Clamence realizes he’s not the pure do-gooder he thinks himself to be, and it’s the recognition of his hypocrisy that causes his fall. If only everyone in the world were such a hypocrite! After all, he’s nothing more than a classic limousine liberal. I can walk down to the North Berkeley Peet’s and yank out many more damnable sorts, myself included.

It’s the acute and crippling self-analysis that makes the novel, though—we should all grapple with the nature of our contradictions in such a manner. And this is what makes me happy and reassures me when I read Camus—the answers to our problems, whether political or personal, don’t lie in clear, intractable solutions (hint, hint Sartre, with your communist panegyrics), but in a continual confession, an exploration of the inherent and inescapable contradictions we find ourselves in.

We are all judges, after all, laying down a truth, expectations, and laws of behaviors for ourselves and others. Yet we are also all doomed to a sort of original sin different from Adam’s—we don’t fall from God’s law, but our own. We can’t not be hypocrites. We live inside of a double negative.

Most of us are unable to jump in the river to save the one who might have committed suicide because the water is too cold, or save those who are hungry and poor in the world—we like our lattes too much, our designer jeans, our international trips, our ability to gather in cozy places and discuss the problems of the world with other like-minded, smart (hypocritical) people.

We’re creatures of temptation, imperfection, and a certain kind of damnation. Deliverance doesn’t come through correction, but an immersement and recognition of the inherent contradictions that make us human. This type of penitence is the only thing that balances and adds a soft nuance to the harshness of judgment (hint, hint righteous Tea Partiers, righteous anybody).

So stand up and say you’re a judge-penitent for God’s sake.

We’ll all be the happier for it. It’s one path to a life of acceptance after all, no matter how troubled that acceptance might be.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Hallucinatory Effects: Jim Carroll and the Art of Purity

What constitutes truth and then how to express it are two of the most interesting, elusive—and too frequently ignored—problems that confront us. We prefer to think that truth is self-evident. Life is easier that way.

It goes beyond the structural blind spot we have in our eye where the optic nerves come together to carry messages to the brain where they’re assembled into “reality.” It’s more a matter of the fiction we live in, or the recognition that our lives are essentially fiction, that the cast of characters who fill our days—including ourselves (yes, in the plural)—are nothing more than a morphing vision, an interpretation, a shifting creation, bits of data assembled and reassembled.

I’m thinking of this especially because of Richard Hell’s review of Jim Carroll’s posthumous novel The Petting Zoo in The New York Times. (It’s so lovely when a rock star is also intelligent and articulate, and that’s not my fiction).

“There’s a parallel time and world inhabited by those who understand that all information is legend, that experience is show business,” Hell writes of Carroll. “He lived in his head. Doesn’t everyone? The difference is that he knew it.”

I’ll always have a tender spot in my heart for Carroll because when the angst of my teen years started forming, somehow his haunting song “People Who Died” made its way from the dark streets of New York City to Iowa radio stations and helped introduce me to a world that held quite different truths (indeed, images of New York City in the '70s still menace me). "Teddy sniffing glue he was 12 years old / Fell from the roof on east two-nine."

As a friend of mine said when she saw the album cover of Catholic Boy that showed Carroll, who looked like a gaunt, emaciated version of David Bowie, standing in a challenging pose with his very square parents, "That's too f#*cking rock star." His eyes held a threat to anyone who made even a gesture to a conventional life.

And then there’s Carroll’s Basketball Diaries, which has become a sort of companion piece to Kerouac’s On the Road for young aspiring writers (mainly men, it seems) who want to dash madly into the late night hours of the night to discover the nether worlds of all of the supposed glories of truths unseen.

Hell reminds us that the diaries contained a disclaimer, which was later removed by the publisher, that they were “as much fiction as biography. They were as much made up as they were lived out. It all happened. None of it happened. It was me. Now it’s you. ‘Nothing is true; everything is permitted.’”

It’s a stunning intro, a con man's taunt—and after reading David Shield’s Reality Hunger, a manifesto that essentially spends 150 pages riffing on fiction vs. memoir vs. appropriation—it’s a prescient take on our contemporary notion of "truth" in the way of a Rimbaud-like prodigy that Carroll was often characterized as.

“He lived among the poets of history, of life, not the accountants or the police officers. He was a con man, but all artists know that, significantly, they are bedazzlers, masters of illusion. Beautiful poetry isn’t life, but it’s pretty to think so.”

So then what is life, truth? How to describe it accurately? Scientists have their approach, but I trust the descriptions of artists more simply because I don't believe in accuracy in such matters. Perhaps it’s better to be content with something that feels like purity. “Carroll wanted to be pure, and poetry is the definition of purity,” Hell writes.

The New Yorker also just published an interesting review of The Petting Zoo, which seems to be just an atrocious novel. But the reviews of Carroll's life are worth reading.

Carroll, like most beautiful creatures, was punished in the end. His search for purity became an exercise in consequence, sequestered in poverty, confined to a small apartment, the blaze in his eyes smothered out by a failing liver. But at least he sensed the possibility of a more beautiful life and tried to imagine it, tried to put words to such a truth.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Used Furniture Review

As a genetically inclined junk collector and ragpicker—literally and literarily—I have to disclose that I was initially attracted to the new online journal Used Furniture Review simply because of its name.

Fortunately it lived up to what I expected of it—a journal that holds surprises, if only because unlike many print journals, it’s publishing a truly eclectic mix of authors who surprise me just as, well, a choice piece of junk/high art that I find in a thrift store might.

For example, read Kim Chinquee’s dreamy, distorted short I Wanted to Believe This Was My Life. She lyrically captures what might be called quotidian disorientation—sounds, movements, memories moving against and through each other without the possibility of focus or answers.

“I felt on the verge of things. My payments, student papers, that report. A journal, asking for an essay. My dad, a never-ending question. My guy’s head, thinking he felt pressured.”

But Used Furniture also publishes great interviews with the likes of Rick Moody, who discusses how he took refuge in the horrors of monster movies as refuge from the horrors of domestic drama as a child, his tastes in music, his current favorite books, and perspectives on his writing process, among other things.

Here’s a bit of Moody’s wisdom:

On his authorial stance: “The movement in and out of autobiography is something dialectical for me. I am always somewhere on a continuum between the completely imaginary and the completely accurate. Of course, there can be neither.”

On revision: “Over the life of a piece you usually alter it less radically, as you go on, and that’s how you know it’s getting better. But there’s no done. There’s no complete. There’s no exhaustion. There are only provisional versions of texts for particular purposes.”

Used Furniture also has published interviews with authors such as Tom Perotta and Luis Alberto Urrea.

One great thing about new online reviews like Used Furniture is their potential. For example, they’re taking ideas for columns. If were a young literary whippersnapper, I’d submit an idea.

So buy some used furniture for God’s sake. My experience is that most used furniture is better than the new stuff, if only because it has more character.