July 6th, 2010 § § permalink
Cheever by Blake Bailey. This is a fine and detailed biography of the American writer, John Cheever (1912-1982) published in 2009. And now for some thoughts on Cheever’s life and writing:
Cheever’s prose has a tartness that keeps you going; velocity and daring and urgency come to mind. You don’t wonder when you read his work, “What in the hell are these people doing here,” or “Why am I reading this,” or “Why was this written?” There is a great canniness and knowing in his work. A sense of different language registers and the clash between the intimate and the social always coming to the surface. I admire all his stories and novels greatly.
About Cheever’s life, as revealed by Bailey, you are not shocked by the concupiscence but the harrowing self-pity and verbal and annotated outcries give pause. He had wonderful kids, a beautiful wife, for starters. He had unique accomplishments: he could have marshaled his own writing classes, he could have called any number of shots but so often (in his journals) he sidelines himself. Did he never pick up a book? Of course but you get the sense that absolutely nothing was steady with the man.
(photo: Nancy Campton)
The absolute childishness and lack of self-knowledge he reveals in his journals is beyond belief. The alcoholism is grotesque. Did he have no sense of the stage he had been granted? Three times on the covers of national magazines? Whence comes the roaring self-pity? He escaped hard bloody fighting during WWII; his regiment was practically wiped out after D-Day. Does that count for nothing? How about a bit of gratitude for that? Yes, of course Cheever writes about the quest for gratitude, love, valor, etc., but still there is an unbounded amount of sheer jawing and complaining across an otherwise valiant life.
Looking at Cheever’s torrent of introspection (The Journals) and afterwards you think: wait a minute. Shouldn’t all this ego-mass be injected into the novels and stories for God’s sake? There is great height and depth here. Do not hide your light under a bushel! It is a torrent after all. Not much gets by him, description, melancholy observation, smells, sound, atmospherics, making odd connections with simple stating or describing what he sees. Crows taking off from a roof, a woman buying a small bag of potatoes in front of him at the line in the grocery store. These are the observations, simply, of a man alive to his lashes. At the same time, my God. What is going on here? His marriage sounds truly hideous; why would someone want to live this way? You admire the arc of his life the redeeming work towards the end (Falconer) but the tools of analysis fall clattering to the floor when you try to make sense of it. At the top of his game he had love and accomplishment, candor, interest, a free life, at least free of the restrictions 99% of humanity toils under, a vastly interesting life, if interest can be deemed a point. So in the end you have to ask, “What was all the shouting about?” Yes, there were kinks in the origins but what about the later adult encounters of success? Do they matter for nothing? (An aside: why repeat the coldness of your parents with your own kids?) He did what he wanted to do for the most part; after that it becomes hard to forgive his cruel, lashing-out preponderances. Yes, it is a sorry thing to read of the money hardships of Cheever. Even those that loved and supported him couldn’t see him through dry spells and into a future of productivity. Easier said than done, perhaps, but was it such a long shot to bet on John Cheever? I think not. (Looks like The New Yorker ripped him off for years paying out at low scale for short stories.) It is unbelievable the pecuniary nature of it all–even at these success levels.
Contrast with Anthony Burgess who just gets on with it and writes a novel, a near masterpiece, Earthly Powers, with a homosexual protagonist to boot (homosexuality, one of Cheever’s life-long demons). You wish Cheever had done the same. It gets worse, the cover ups, the hetero-boasting strike you as extremely bizarre.
There’s the life and then there is the writing…
December 4th, 2008 § § permalink
#1 Naipaul’s follow up to Among the Believers, Beyond Belief. There is no laughter in Naipaul. For all his criticisms of 3rd worlders their disillusionment with revolution and frustration with their present and submission to murderous buffoons he is all sympathy; his judgments make you wonder are human beings so loaded with their pasts? Do people pass lives in stolid unreflecting torpor and has the West such a comprehensive grip on the more successful countries of the world namely the Anglosphere? Are peoples, entire countries so bereft of hope, of humor or enduring human qualities? I wonder. Naipual rightly decries the insane murderousness of what he sees in the convert countries. But does he have to sweep away all signs of life before him? Of humor? Independence and struggle for life? Do they not exist at all? Really? It is hard to believe. Updike, in a review of The Loss of El Dorado says, “But in viewing an entire hemisphere as a corrupted dream, Naipaul dissolves what realities there were…[TLED] rests upon an unexamined assumption, of metropolitan superiority…Was the cruelty of slavery not an extension of the cruelty already present on the African continent?” I think Updike is trying to push back at Naipaul’s assumptions that we – the Americas, say, only got the bad from Europe as all the high flown phrasings of brotherhood equality, constitutions, democracy became pure air under a floor of despotism and slavery. Giving the Americas an atmosphere of unreality and emptiness. That real life was happening elsewhere (Europe for instance); that the collapse of metropolitan values led to unreality simplicity and moral degeneracy. Updike ends with this reasonable question: “Does not the collapse of “metropolitan” values amid “simpler” conditions demonstrate their own frailty and unreality?” He pronounces finally about Naipaul’s “bleak and caustic” tone; two adjectives appropriate to much of his writing.
#2 In a latter volume of essays Updike refines his assessment of the Naipauls’ (this time commenting on a book by Shiva): “Yet people live here, under these imperfect governments, and their lives are truth.” What a beautiful statement. Also found: a perfect copy, bookclub edition, of Marquez’ The Autumn of the Patriarch. He worked so hard on it I have to give him credit; the scale of Latin American misery and subjection to murderous fools; the scale is so small and seems to take place in a rim of the world so far off as to be barely notable, yet it exists. The cultures are dynamic and vibrant filled with mistrust and thievery they are hermetic, however. And not so hospitable to outsiders.
#3 Finished Naipaul’s Beyond Belief. It is beyond belief the madness taking place in the Muslim convert countries he writes about: Malaysia, Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan. Insanity on a mass scale. And to hear leftists trash America as an imperial power messing up the world. These people have no sense of how good we have it; we still have the power to deliver happy childhoods to our kids. These other countries don’t.
#4 Have to admit I love the stretch of Rainier between Graham and Henderson. It is full of life: drugs, prostitutes, religion (Muslims, Black churches galore), politics (Black Panthers). Driving through it with my cousin D–, he pronounced it “seedy.” I said, “au contraire it seethes with life.” I do love it so. It quickens my writer’s eye and pen. I can see a V.S. Naipaul passing through and declaring it a intellectual wasteland; worse! A quicksand, undernourished or mal-nourished, on dreams of resentment and a whirling nihilistic drag; with no apportionment for the future, no sense of the wider world of success within which it is lodged. So true, but it is filled with life…
#5 Naipaul’s thesis that Islam is a lock and hammer upon people and their sense of past; it – he believes – closes down inquiry and historical knowledge. It only allows for itself to flourish. Islam is the most demanding of mental imperialisms, sez he. Are you sure, Vida? Muslims in America: our inner cities are seeing thousands of orthodox Muslims, mostly from Somalia, set up families and shops. They are the ones who have decided to invest in lives in our towns and cities. This is not exactly unprecedented. Big cities of the eastern seaboard saw many thousands of orthodox Jews from Europe fill their poor neighborhoods at the end of the 19th century – beginning of the 20th. Otherwise, extreme religious folk have chosen to develop out of the line of fire, as it were; the Mormons founded a community on the hard salty badlands of Utah. The Mennonites took to the far fields of Pennsylvania to develop and breed apart from totalizing secular America. But the forces will go two ways: they will pick up converts, yes, but the pull of plain-flavored, God-less life will also work its way into their communities. This tension will bring about good things, much as orthodox Jewish communities of the end of the 19th century brought forth creative thinkers and doers in every field of human endeavor. This is what happens when you plunk down in the middle of a secular modern city. It is inevitable. So mostly I am optimistic. The current liberal left however is not doing this new community any favors by leading them to think that America is ready to pay them obeisance or otherwise codify their reverence with civic niceties. The new immigrants must take their knocks along with everyone else.
#6 Just because VS Naipaul is tired of the novel am I supposed to give up enjoyment of literature? He loves to declaim and make pronouncements: the novel is dead and dying, it doesn’t address the imaginative needs of readers, it is fake, it is phony, therefore let’s be done with it. Well, this kind of pronouncement-making is what intellectuals do. He claims he is not an intellectual but like bodily smells you can’t just wish ideas away. They stay close. So he pronounces and produces ideas; there is a grimy peasant mentality to VS Naipaul’s work; it is truth, but it is an ungenerous and mean truth. A mean and spiteful truth of peasants, their hostility, spite and suspicion.
#7 Naipaul riffs on Latin America. It is screwed up because there is no facing up to the Indian part of the country that is despised. That is to despise a part of yourself and you will never overcome. Latin America wants to be an extension of Europe; that is all and well but there is more to the story. Latin America is a continent that has been trampled over. I’ll quote Naipaul on Latin America. He sez:
These things happen over the course of a writer’s life. I used to be called a satirist. I don’t know what I was supposed to be satirising. The reason is probably that I’ve never been an official writer – many colonial chaps, their passion is to be an official writer. Latin America is full of nothing but official writers. You mean as they were in the Soviet Union? No, an official
writer is someone whose views do not harm the Establishment, the government, authority of all kinds. I was thinking about Latin America, where most writers are trying to be official writers, who do what is required of them, who do what they feel they are expected to do. It is full of official writers who offend no
one, and leave Latin America eternally in its mess, because they offend no one. The truth is dodged, the mess continues.
Further comment from Naipaul:
Well, I’ll tell you what happened. I actually was in Trinidad at the end of 1971, by which time this Michael X had murdered and buried people. And out of interest I went to look at the house and the holes where the people were buried, and I followed the story there. I had no intention of writing about it, and then my friend Francis Wyndham of the Sunday Times asked me to write about it. And I went back and did a lot more research, got a lot more documents and everything and did that story. And in doing it I learnt something about people who support revolutions, and that was not greatly different from what Conrad had discovered,
in The Secret Agent. What did he discover? This woman who supports the anarchist believes she is so secure and so aristocratic, that when the world is blown up only the others will be destroyed. She will float serenely above the wreckage. So there are secure people who encourage revolutionaries. When societies are not secure it’s a different matter.
Naipaul keeps calling 3rd World countries and societies “half-made” but their mere living grants them a shot at truth. (Naipaul offers up the sharp criticism of Latin America ever: he said these are scum societies, societies that think that killing the right people will solve all their problems. Hate to say it, but, he got that part right.
#8 It took me a long time, but I might finally get Naipaul. I am a slow learner. I believe I can peg the two poles of modern literature: at one end stands Nabokov who proclaims all ideas “hogwash”. Only the production of superior images matters in fiction. At the other end you have Naipaul, who claims that literature should only reflect ideas that in turn, act as X-rays into society of the time; these ideas should also deliver commentary on society, also poke it, prod it, shake it up, etc. Both writers point to Gogol, incidentally, to shore up their positions. Naipaul calls Gogol a great novelist of his society and times and Nabokov wrote a short biographical tract to say that Gogo; was, like Nabokov, interested only in flashing images of pure art, society be damned.
#9 Here is J.M. Coatzee reviewing Naipaul’s Half a Life:
Both father and son believe they see through other people. But they detect lies and self-deception all around them only because they are incapable of imagining anyone unlike themselves. Their shrewdness of insight is grounded in nothing but
a self-protective reflex of suspicion. Their rule of thumb is always to give the least charitable interpretation. Self-absorption, minginess of spirit, rather than inexperience, are at the root of Willie’s failures in love.
#10 Naipaul would dash myth or the mythopoetic spirt of modernist literature. He condemns Joyce for sitting in Trieste and writing about his life or life in Dublin (much as a young Naipaul sat in London and wrote about a long-lost Trinidad). I want to tell Naipaul, there is more to it than that. Europe, the continent of free wills, of generosity of spirit and the spirit of community, metropolitanism, of self-sacrifice and civic ideals is that but it is also a killing floor. Its own maniacal death-seeds contain its defeats and fears and these have not all been faced; yes, the 19th century novelists did their jobs and did them well but in the 20th century we inherited a suicide/slaughter house; Western novelists have been on suicide watch and as ignominious as that is, it is the reality that we inherited. We can’t go back to the comprehensive liveliness of the 19th century and atomize society as the grand novelists of the time did. Pine, as we may, for the comprehensive vision of 19th century novelists but theirs is not our world. We must take the world as we got it. It is not fair of you, Naipaul, who, yes, forced through the novel the voices of the unknown, to say now that all is known and the novel has nothing further to contribute. Is it up to Naipaul to declare this? Go ahead, but it is just one more nattering intellectual voice offering prescription and proscription – telling the artist what to do. Art management, Naipaul’s new bag. The novel may be a failure as a form but a bigger failure is Art Management. There is still much room to move.
#11 VSN on Latin America, again. As for Latin America being a place of self-deception and mythmaking – wide avoidance of history and past cruelty – a longing for denial, etc – well, Latin America’s literary artists didn’t exactly avoid reality in their novels. As early as the 1920s you had Miguel Angel Austurias writing up his society realistically albeit in ghostly forms – as he saw it. Ditto Alejo Carpentier. Worthy and artistic attempts perhaps influenced by European or American literature but very much their own design. To come to Naipaul and the present: The successful novelist pronouncing the death of the novel is a bit of a cliché. Let Updike have the last word here: “Authors do well to remember that they are not really kin to priests and politicians but to singers and stand-up comedians―entertainers, of a devious sort.”
#12 Sadly much of Naipual’s critique can be hurled at America, think of Faulkner and his mythmaking. His style. Now I am reading Naipaul’s A Turn in the South; very strong, very moving. It is hard to believe that such hatred (between black and white but mostly the hatred of white toward black) thrived in your own country. Naipaul’s renditions of slavery: the entry of a new slave from Africa and how they would put him in a box while next to the box an old slave would calm him down, sooth him into his new life. This is the true horror of slavery, if you can imagine your way into it. You want to weep, to tear your teeth out, to scream; it was a violation of everything that America stood for. One of humanity’s truly unavenged crimes. The whole enterprise was hysterical, the looting of Africa for flesh over centuries. What happened to the moral core of the west? It vanished when it came to slavery. And its particular brutal American variety that denuded the slave of his past; obliterated it. It was an exalted (or rotten) sex cult in which everyone who came near it was degraded.
#13 VS Naipaul continues with his thesis that great civilizations, not realized, lie to themselves and that all modern literatures not of the West, are fakes and fantasists (they don’t tell things or portray things as they are but spin fantasies about themselves). He indicts the ancient Romans for not exposing the brutalities around them but for fluffing up their own mythologies. For all Naipaul’s emphasis on truth telling and hard realities, you often don’t believe him. The seeing and not seeing, the half-seeing of ancient writers; heavily weighted sociology. Well now, can’t societies produce misfits, visionaries and dreamers? In short, novelists? And why can’t they dream? Are dreams the monopoly of the fully realized, self actualized, truth tellers of the West? (What does that mean?) I am suspicious. That is, I suspect Naipaul’s claim to Indian-ness, especially in that he doesn’t speak Hindi. He places himself at the periphery of British Colonial civilization, that much is true, but to insert himself into India as Indian is wrong; he can praise the aspects of the British world that he internalized, even living on the periphery, and exult in those but I don’t see his background as granting him any special place in Indian life. India has its own dynamics and ways of carrying on. Some of them strike Naipaul as shameless and self-serving but so goes the life of nations. Nationhood is a push me – pull me affair; VSN has some idea of the West as a self-fulfilling dream – all was good for the novel, in the old days of early Dickens. But shame on modernism and Joyce and all that decadent, non-socially useful flowed into the novel via Modernism. Sorry, I don’t buy it. Then VSN calls the ancient writers to task for not analyzing their own societies, but what did Seutonius do? What did Tacitus do? What about Apuleius? What about Saint Augustine’s Confessions? Martial? Juvenal? Petronius? These were not exactly time-servers or ass lickers. Likewise, to return to the present, is the 3rd world so bereft of critical writing of self-reflection and condemnation? Miguel Angel Austurias? Early Carpentier?
January 26th, 2008 § § permalink
Dex Quire was born in Sunbreak City, Washington State. As a young adult he moved to Seattle reveling in the many correspondences of the smaller rainy city to the larger one.
Quire was raised in a red cowboy hat and grew up in a pair of yellow cowboy boots. The Hat & Boots was a hamburger stand on Marginal Way and a well-known Sunbreak City landmark in the heart of the industrial district. The Boots had toilets in the heels: Right Women, Left Men. Regulars called it, simply enough, the Hat. Cops liked to have coffee there as did the members of the Marginal Way Foursquare Pentecostal who came in Sunday afternoons with their large Thompson Chain Reference Bibles and argued about the Rapture: Pre, Post or Mid Tribulation. Pastor Ron had installed Harley, the dishwasher, an ex bum who had been hit by a train years before which incident, while knocking the wet bar from his brain, left him with a working vocabulary of “it’s better’n a poke in the eye.”
Quire claims that he grew up in the left boot, along with his dog, Steve, a pointy-nosed Blue Heeler with one green and one yellow eye and a bluish yellow coat so hideously blotched that Quire’s mom thought his ugliness would fend off child predators.
“Jesus, that’s an ugly dog,” truck drivers would say.
“He’s from Zanzibar,” Dex would reply. The drivers would look thoughtful and not say anything.
Truckers liked the large gravel oval surrounding the Hat & Boots, good for turning their rigs around in. Next door south was Nordstrom Headstone with its display of marble and granite slabs, Grecian urns, cement eagles, naked angels and plaster saints, and to the north, Bunky’s Auto Wrecking. Behind the property an elbow of the Duwamish river bent and flowed gray and thick as spent motor oil after having descended the cold silvery headwaters of the Cascade mountains to stroll the Kent Valley where, seasoned with farm pesticides, it stewed through Sunbreak City’s industrial flats, past the airplane factory, the cement factory, the cardboard box factory, the bottle factory, the sawmill, the steel mill, past factories diapered in giant American flags whilst spewing tiny wages, past the tugboat yard, where, widening out into the delta flats it glopped its remains into the salmon-pruned Puget Sound.
Quire had his own fridge and TV when he was five. That’s when he moved from his mother’s boot to his own boot, three stories of masonite plaster chicken wire mesh two by fours, yellow paint and shellac. Quire’s boot had the Men’s toilet in the heel. The square-toed tip, the shitkicker part, was the front door. The living room―where the ball of your foot goes, windowless and in his mother’s boot, the right boot, this actually smelled of old socks. Quire was fastidious. Everyone thought he was going to be a banker. As soon as he could add and subtract his mother had him doing the books, such as they were.
To this day when Quire puts on a right cowboy boot he imagines squishing some of the guys his mom brought home. Himself, he pictures down there, somewhere near the ball of the left big toe, where his bed was. The TV room would be above the ankle, just below the boot strap. There was even a little curtained window Quire would look out at night and watch the cars swish by. He imagined the cars full of handsome couples going out on the town someplace featuring glamorous women with bountiful chests and wide smiles, the kind of women that surrounded Jackie Gleason at the end of his Saturday night show. Afterwards, those couples returned to someplace called home where the mom and the dad were happy, where a light shone in the living room where dad ruffled the evening paper while he flopped his stocked feet and wiggled his toes on a hassock while mom baked something warm and sweet in the oven. The kind of mom that smiled when dad slapped her on the ass as he left in the morning with his hat cocked at a nifty angle. At the back of the boot above the heel was Quire’s bathroom and then a spiral staircase that led to the top.
Quire’s first toy was a guitar with no strings, a sunburst Stella, that Earl Jones, a Tar Heel truck driver with an elaborately swirled pompadour and a Hat regular, placed in his crib. “He’s a goddamn guitar player, Carol [Quire’s mom], can’t you goddamn see it? I goddamn well see it. It’s all over his goddamn tiny little goddamn face. He’ll be playing the goddamn guitar before you goddamn well know it.”
As a restaurant, the Hat did OK but in those days, after the country had won a great war, a restaurant in the form of a giant red cowboy hat and restrooms in the form of giant yellow cowboy boots was no big deal. Just down the highway there was a hamburger stand shaped like two giant tepees called – what else? – Twin Tepees as well as the Coon Chicken Shack, a restaurant cast as a giant Negro head with one popping white eye and the other covered with an eye patch, with a black top hat that doubled as a chimney and a wide open mouth you walked through to enter the restaurant. How about Andy’s Flying A gas stations with twin spitfires parked on the roof? Or a giant cup and saucer called Puck n’ Judy’s? Or Shirley Elefantine’s Tavern topped with a 20 foot high elephant carrying a veiled Indian princess cradling a sitar? Or Roan’s Plumming supply beaming its 30 foot tall neon toilet plunger?