Chapter 2

August 16, 2010 § 1 Comment

The Famous Writing Professor (FWP) looked around her office. She did not want to go back. Back to the un-professor days, the zero-land of non-professorship. That dead TV-screen-turned-off-world outside the university. Sitting in her office she knew that she would do whatever president Branch told her to do. Anything. She felt herself the precise equal of any crack-head ‘ho groveling at the gold tipped, iguana skin boots of her Mack Daddy. Snowden Branch, you’s my pimp. Twenty five years of sneering, snorts and finger-air quotes at the words “male” and “man” might as well belong to some stranger’s life. Twenty five years of deriding male hegemony blown, poofed away. Sneeze, as substantial as a sneeze—never had she felt so strongly the hollow evanescence of words, their spittle-flecked nothingness. Of Branch’s body there was no protuberance she would not suck, no orifice she would not probe, tongue-wise, to maintain her status as university professor. Not that Branch would ever make such demands but the famous professor needed these clarifying blasts to get a handle on herself.

She felt a chill and crossed her arms, her hands rubbing their elbows opposite. She yawned. How did president Branch put it? The extension schools—Snohomish campus, Skykomish campus, Snoqualmie campus—needed help just now and they could do worse than receive the oversight of a seasoned and prestigious senior professor. Great. It came to her unbidden that when a fan wrote Walt Whitman asking why he hadn’t made a visit to Washington territories Whitman wrote back teasing and said why would anyone want to visit a place where you can’t pronounce any of the names. The FWP would be a kind of higher-ed missionary then, bringing the enlightenment of freshman composition to the natives in the unpronounceable boondocks. And when visitors came to the main campus from Dubai or Saudi Arabia she would be, conveniently, nowhere in sight.

The FWP glanced at the literary insert spread out on her desk. She looked away quickly but she couldn’t unsee the title: The Koran: 4 Translations by Joffrey Simpson O’Day. The rare winter light coming through her office window drew her eyes back to the paper and she read:

The Valley Girl Koran:

Surely, like, Allah does not do injustice to thuh weight of an atom, like, wow, and if it is like, ya know, a bitchin’ deed That dude multiplies it and gives from Himself an awesum reward—

She couldn’t read on. She was afraid she would laugh and enjoy it. And there was more. The Barney Frank Koran, The Pig Latin Koran, the Adult Koran. Why did he have to write up four versions?

The FWP looked around her office and scanned hopefully her talismans: the small bronze naked dancer given to her by a famous lesbian Mexican sculptor, the set of Sunbreak City cityscapes, charcoal, by famous gay Portland artist Toshihara, the large pine cone from the Whidbey Island Wymynz Retreat, the shelves of thin poetry books, how she loved them, the whale vertebrae found on the beach at Seaside, the poster of Susan B. Anthony, the poster of Mao offering apples to smiling apple-cheeked children, the Che poster. She beheld her autographed, framed poems by Adrienne Rich, Richard Hugo and Tess Gallhager. Everything seemed to agree with her gut-feeling: not much hope here; everything would soon be boxed and in transit.

.     .     .

Joffrey lived in Sunbreak City’s southwest neighborhood, Rainier City. Teachers, social workers and local politicians liked to extol: 98118 the most diverse zip code in the nation. They wanted the word “diverse” to mean people of varied skin tone and global extraction living together in loving, hippy, communal splendor. True, so many spear ends warmed their points at this campfire. But it also had one of the highest murder rates in the country. Sunbreak City was made up of neighborhood clusters called “Citys”: University City, Capitol Hill City, Queen Anne City, Ballard City, Roosevelt City, Freemont City, Rainier City.

Walking around his neighborhood, Rainier City Joffrey observed:

whites with enough money to buy a first house,

mostly software workers, young two-income couples.

They did stroll the mostly black neighborhood

even with baby carriage but they were usually

accompanied by a large, shark-toothed, dog.

The couples gathered at a local breakfast diner

on weekends and the women wore their ponytails

pulled through the backs of their baseball hats.

The husbands looked worn and slightly abused

like newly broken palominos.

What was the thrill in living in a mostly black neighborhood? Did the white couples want to get closer to glamour? Did Joffrey? To look at him you could tell there hadn’t been much glamour in his life. The pictures of black men on his uncle’s jazz records from the early 1960s embodied glamour for Joffrey. They showed black men in suits and sharp sport jackets or white shirts and thin ties. They wore a very cool variety of hats, always angled perfectly. Sometimes they were short-sleeved and smoking a cigarette. Always the cigarette. It made Joffrey want to smoke, handling those album covers at age nine. Their sense of style was unmistakable and spoke strongly to a poor kid living in the irrigated desert valleys of Washington State. He wouldn’t have known how to express it as a child but he felt, yes, black men embodied glamour. Even working class black dudes, the field guys he had actually observed, had a certain style, the way they arranged their collar or wore a nifty hat, they gave off style. Without knowing any black men he imagined them strained through the harshest mesh of American experience—from prison to academia and onwards through the executive political and business gauntlets. They had permeated America and they were America’s greatest experiencers. A 21st century black American man would have traveled through the criminal justice troughs and eaten the extreme slops; traversed academia or local politics and on into business—another set of slops but, again, an extreme range of exposure to everything American, its sexual extremities and crannies and multiple personality disorders; all that would have been tasted by an American black man.

And Asians. Viet Wah was a former large supermarket, a Safeway or Albertsons converted into an immense Southeast Asian grocery store. A smell walloped you upon entry: deep fried shellfish in a garlic batter. It featured exotica, the full palette of Asian appetite which was essentially the entire squirming sea-world. Surveying the plain of Asian edibles is a lifetime project but let’s say there is little non-poisonous (and some poisonous) that cannot be called Asian food. In the fish section mackerel, red snapper, catfish lay with their still living underwater colors on ice rubble. Sometimes the store featured a large tub of frogs. You peered into a barrel and were startled by the dark slightly moving mass and the multiple swimmy eyes looking up at you. It made Joffrey feel like an anthropology major shopping at Viet Wah. Bent grandmothers and improbably slender-limbed women with polished-carbon black hair—it was Indian hair, Indian cousins’ hair (Joffrey could easily imagine an alternate world in which such hair would be packaged in small silk packets and used as currency).

And Muslims. This was unexpected. At first Joffrey didn’t know what he was seeing. He thought the bundled and clad women were Catholic sisters or some kind of strict Christian sect. But they were Muslim women, deeply wrapped and religiously spoken for. He had news for Allah: the scarves, the hijabs the burkhas—none of it really worked if the goal was to prevent men from getting turned on by the female form. There seemed to be many kinds of female wrap. Some gowns were heavy and some were sheer. When a tall dark striking Muslim woman stood at a bus stop wearing a headscarf while Allah’s own wind tore at her, she appeared essentially naked with light colorful silks clinging to her shapely body; the wind hugging her into sculpted, near-blasphemous nakedness. Jesus had a better grasp of the male mind when he said men, you gobble women down in your heart. Male lust in imagination goes all the way down to the root. Clothing is no barrier to the male mind. Or when sitting in the coffee shop and you see a Muslim woman enter, covered except for a small net at eye level. Her ankles are bare and her brisk steps waft open the floor of her long skirt. You notice she has smooth brown skin. You then extrapolate: beautiful skin all the way up to her neck. Beautiful skin everywhere, it must be. And more, there are two generous bumps at chest level; for those bumps to show through all that cloth they must be extraordinary.

But let me hang on this a minute, thought Joffrey. A religious group marked conspicuously by their dress, moves into secular American cities, very much in, very much apart.

Apart how? They simply dress that way.

And by their dress, forward a religious preference into the neutral zone of the civic commons.

Is that wrong?

No, but it is stretching the unspoken boundaries.

What unspoken boundaries?

Americans don’t generally bring intimate declarations into the public commons. Political declarations, religious declarations should be reserved for private gatherings.

What about buttons or wedding rings or crucifixes on necklaces. Aren’t these on display out in the public sphere?

But they are considered small and unobtrusive. With Muslim clothing you are defining the whole person from head to foot. But let me ask you: don’t the women of the majority culture, fed on their own sense of liberation, the oppressiveness of men, scream inwardly at the burkhas Muslim women wear? And don’t men of the majority culture smart inwardly at the Muslim men who dress in gowned fashion—Afghani or Saudi gowns—similar to bin Laden, murderer of so many innocent Americans?

If they do, so what? They must keep such inward screaming to themselves.

But you’re not only asking fellow citizens to suppress inward screaming; you also demand they deny outward observation. Now the majority citizen is wrong to even notice the religious distinction. Observation is now judgment and judgment racism. An ancient antagonist might settle in the urban centers of the west’s larger cities but you will not write a newspaper article highlighting his particularly noticeable religious wear. [Will the bearded Muslim clad figure—the bin Laden figure—enter the culture as a monster, a kids costume at Halloween?] Will the children of the majority culture and the children of Muslim immigrants, now classmates, be taught any of the historical conflicts between Islam and the west going back well over a thousand years?

Probably not. And?

No because any expression other than delight in diversity is proscribed. 98118, the most diverse zip code in the nation!

Was this why you, Joffrey, did up the Koran? Did you want to force the issue? The women of the majority culture, the men of the majority culture will mute their inward screaming until…

I don’t know.

Brilliant answer. But you do know. You do know: When the next attack comes. If it is Muslim led there will be no inward screaming. All will become outward.

Hold on partner; I didn’t say that. Pause the apocalypse.

I agree. Just remember: they are here. And here is no static proposition. What else are Muslims doing but becoming Americans? To be American is to be in motion. The women are driving and studying and taking classes and buying property and starting businesses. It is, as they say, a fluid situation.

The Somalian Muslims lived in the revamped public housing section near Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. These were new town houses available for rent or purchase. In the mornings the women stood with their kids on street corners waiting for school buses. A scene right out of the Dick and Jane readers of Joffrey’s youth except the mom was gowned in full burkha, the little girl wore a headscarf and the boy, a little man, free and running circles around his sister.

.    .     .

Somali dudes walking along Martin Luther King, Jr. Way pressed a thumb and forefinger to a nostril and, blowing hard, slammed their monstrous gob of snot to the pavement. Sometimes Hispanic guys did this too.

 .     .     .

At nearby Aki Kurose playfield about sixty to eighty Somali men ranged in enthusiastic weekend soccer games. They had light bulb shaped heads, stick legs and tallish frames. They were good players and fun to watch. One thing Joffrey didn’t get was: how could they tell the difference between teammates and opposing players? Every player wore a different colored outfit. No kind of uniformity seemed to exist for either side. Red, white, black socks, shirts, shorts and jerseys. After making the observation Joffrey realized he didn’t want to know. The opposing masculine forces organize themselves somehow, invisibly, and the atomic confusion delighted Joffrey. He didn’t want to speculate even. He made it his private, delicious question; a grace note of his new life in Sunbreak City. He didn’t want to wreck it by knowing.

.     .     .

Jamus Delano was Dayfresh House’s only black resident. “I’m a first,” Jamus said to Joffrey one afternoon. Jamus was blocking the doorway to the kitchen but he needn’t have; Joffrey found it easy to fall into Jamus’s loud, unrestrained aura. “My mom was the first black Registered Nurse in Sunbreak City. My dad was the first black bank president. My sister the first black Nordstrom Headstone executive and I’m the family’s first drug addict!” Jamus then let out a blast of shouting laughter so laden with psychological buckshot—insecurity, shame, defiance, bluster, self immolation, jollity, resentment, hilarity,—that Joffrey could only stand there, a frozen headlight facing a family of prancing mule deer.

Jamus’ turbine-geyser-laugh washed away every social nub and tenet, leaving you feeling mentally slicked down and prepped for his next conversational bizàrrité. You were always embarrassed for Jamus but somehow you always felt the joke was on you.

“Business is really my thing,” Jamus said. He was on his way to the bathroom with a towel over an arm, a purple toothbrush in one hand and an I heart Sunbreak City cup with a mug handle in the other. “I think,” he paused with his usual dramatic caesura, “I think I must have gotten hooked on drugs to escape the continual feed of business ideas that blast through my mind. They don’t give me any rest. I’m not bragging. They just don’t. The ideas just pour in. Take the 900 number. Phone sex lines mostly. The phone companies rake in millions every year off 900 numbers—all that heavy-breathing sex blather. Last year I tried to take out a 900 number. Not for phone sex but for philosophical conversation. A Philosophy Chat Line. I’ve got a pretty good grasp of Philosophy 101 and so I thought: who wouldn’t want to talk philosophy at lunchtime? Or so I thought. If a caller got real technical I’d have a copy of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Philosophy on hand. And if a caller got really pushy I could always get out of any conundrum with a philosophical question like, Well, what do you think? Anyway, I went downtown, down to corporate, to enquire about getting my 900 number for a Philosophy Line. Just pure philosophical phone chat. The girls at the reception desk didn’t have a clue what I was after. I’m sure they thought I was the usual 900 line perv. And the names I was tossing around―Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger―I’m sure they thought I was talking about strange sexual practices they’d never heard of. So there I was downtown, a black guy going on about weird sex positions and a new approach to 900 calls. The more I tried to explain to the girls about the Philosophy Line the more nervous they got. Soon enough, I’ve got a security guard—one on each arm—floating me towards the door. They gave me an extra shove to make sure I landed on the cement stairs. I never did get the 900 Philosophy Line. I still think there’s got to be a market for it. Men and women who would like to talk about Kant, Plato, Hegel and Descartes and Nietzsche at lunchtime or stuck in commuter traffic…”

.     .     .

 Joffrey discovered the patch of Rainier Ave between Graham and Henderson was not far from Dayfresh House: drugs, murders, whores, Buddhist temples; Joffrey incorporated it into his neighborhood walks. Iron bars go up on the windows of small shop windows and doors and of course on first floor apartment windows. Wouldn’t the bars on the windows stand as monuments to the stupidity of thieves who crap in their own front yard? Jesus, thieves are lazy. At night gas stations turn into Plexiglas coffins. Out come the trigger-ready drug dealers and apprentice pimps; cock-pinching young black guys with the sagging pants, flat-billed baseball caps and ice pick threads of disconfidence in their eyes. You’ve got the official whores, glowy and glossy when young and freezer-burned when old. How could these women unbeautify themselves so? Coppery-smooth dark skin transformed into a rotting banana brown, announcing hospitality to every wasting disease known. Joffrey walked here to educate himself. This would be Sunbreak City’s poor neighborhood. It didn’t feel poor to Joffrey. I know poverty, Joffrey thought. This feels too rich in strut and assertion. Rich in rub and bristle. There is too much vitality; these are not a people done to. My people were done to. And they barely recovered or became too comfortable in their loss. Here on Rainier were people of style and taking umbridge, a demiurge of pelvic thrust, there was no supplication, it was all warning. What Indians were before the white man came. But now sitting around regretting that they didn’t fight them to the death and disappointed in their offspring. Too much delicious violence, death-ready. Yet full of life. Did that make sense? But it was poor, Joffrey knew. But damnit, blacks had such an instinct for the Royal Jelly of the culture. They knew how to slice the choice rhetorical cuts of the language. The gravitational pull of Death was heavy. Everything sucked back into the neighborhood. This was fact. A bars-on-windows, standard hard-scrabble, big city American neighborhood. Almost nightly, police helicopters hovered stationary, machining the air, blasting powerful light beams into the backyards and alleys, hunting fleeing suspects.

Last night walking down Rainier Joffrey heard the chopper overhead and he thought for a second that it was coming for a tree that he and his crew had readied for harvest deep in the Cascade hillsides. He saw a young black man pressed onto the hood of a police cruiser. The young man was shirtless and his naked torso revealed a swatch of black skin that was striking even under the muggy light of the streetlamp. It was a uniform black without patch or blemish, as though painted on with great care. No tattoos. It was beautiful. The beauty must have hit the cops too. One cop was talking into a receiver and the other cop was holding the young man by the neck, not brutally but firmly almost affectionately and with enough time to notice the contrast of his pink hand and arm against the gloss of the young man’s back. The young man turned his head that was knotted with tiny braid strands, short as cigarette filters, so Joffrey saw that his face was also the same even and pure black. He had a full curled underlip that because of the contrast with the skin made the lip seem deep red. Beauty hits us but we deny it. We don’t give it words. The cops wouldn’t put out an all points bulletin saying police are looking for a black youth, male, with beautiful, even black skin all around with a full dark red lip that curls under. When the cops went back to their suburban homes at night, to their white families, would this image stay with them and haunt them? They couldn’t tell their wives, “Hon, today we busted a black pot dealer and his skin was this amazing beautiful black tone you don’t see very often.” Even when Americans were driving slaves in the public square, selling bodies and black flesh on the market blocks you wouldn’t hear the language of beauty, though every onlooker might be struck by it. I doubt the slavers cried out, “Look at this beautiful glossy skin? Isn’t it just fucking amazing?”

Or did they?

If you live around black people you’re amazed at how brown they are. Their color is distributed interestingly in patches of dark and light here and there, depending on the body. But occasionally color chooses a body and paints it to perfection. Fontina was like this. At parties where there were mostly white people sometimes the wives would wander over and comment upon her beautiful skin. And Joffrey thought, Is that it? People? Shit! Is it just plain old envy or what?

Back at the cop car the young man’s shirt was still up and the cops gingerly tapped him on his lower body. The young man was yelling over and over: “Hey man!” “Y’all got me mixed up with my twin brother, y’all got me mixed up with my twin, man. I’m Jason. Ya’all looking for Jaden!”

Joffrey walked past the mini-Muslim mall selling halal food and phone cards, where Somali men with henna-orange beards sat and hung out. They chewed khat and always gave him closed-mouth nods when he walked by. He walked passed a Vietnamese Buddhist temple with wrought iron flames atop the property fence. Then a black church, The Rose of Sharon, comes into view. And then more drug dudes hanging out. Kids rizzle-razzled, swarming apartment buildings. Crack hos with chalk lips and shock hair and solar-flare eyes. Nightmareville: they seem sexually overused, abused, like Sunbreak City windshield wipers. Cars speed by declaring nihilism; cars speed by, cars with shiny spinning hubcap rims. They look like show cars and they try to tell me something, what, I don’t know. Shiny wheels and chicks: there’s got to be a link. Everything is linked to chicks. This is not a delay-gratification neighborhood. The pants are tight and goods are displayed; it is a grab market. Some survive on cheap rent and prayers. The oxy pills of welfare moms scatter the neighborhood to provide supplemental income from the street. (Oxys looking for their morons.) All you have to do is ask. The cops are represented by their fictitious stand-ins—the fake police ho’s, women too good to be true; regular paycheck women with bright dentition and empidermal warmth. Real ho’s have the thousand yard stare (so sez the Commander) and some kind of marking—tattoos or scars or burns. Joffrey’s immersion is full and complete. He is and is not scared. But what are you doing here if simple observation may extract its price? The bullets may fly. While here you can’t imagine another world. You are in Rainier Valley. Is this God’s creation? Yes, but all the human gravitation falls inward.

(We incorporate Death. We make of him a family member—a hated family member—or we turn Him into someone—like the city guy who comes to turn your water or electricity off. Make room for Death, awful as that sounds.)

Joffrey recognized the process, the makeover.

Drugs and stupidity go together, but in this, your neighborhood, the easy, good money comes from dope and it seems worth it. You do not have to read or study. You do not have to go outside yourself. You can stay the same more or less foolish young man that you were; you don’t have to bend or embrace yourself in the wide world—it is a simple world of cheese and mousetraps. The big powers—the men who build tall buildings employ mouse traps but their real designs have nothing to do with you.

Where does this Mind come from? Wrapped inside the great overcoat of technology—a technologically advanced civilization carries within it beings who are content to hang back. There are pockets inside the great coat of technology. But make no mistake—they live in technology’s pocket—whatever ride we’re on it is a technological ride. They are grazing like lint in the pockets. Catalogue of Death—I am the mother you shouldn’t have loved. Even Death doesn’t change things. But Joffrey already knew this. Why should it? The poor. Dope is stronger than Death. Having a little to do with White culture as possible is stronger than Death. Why does the neighborhood exist? In the middle of the most technologically innovative city in the country. Why do young black guys go in for pimping and selling drugs and killing each other over nothing? Because they are living another life. A life that tells them they are legendary and living a life of adventure and risk (As opposed to one of stupidity and inertia) and does any of this have to do with slavery?

.     .    .

 Preach it brother, said Jamus.

How can you read my mind, Jamus?

Because I have thought every thought.

 .     .     .

Joffrey turns off Rainier Avenue and walks eastward to the top of the hill. Wealth breaks out. Splendor and views of the immense blue of the lake draws him down to its water. The outcroppings of money strike him as odd geological formations until his eyes get used to them. The lawns are trimmed the hedges are molded. No sculpted. Descending to the shore of Lake Washington wealth and tidiness return. The lakeshore is overwhelming tidy lovely breathing Joffrey thought especially on a late summer day like today.

To come upon south Lake Washington for the first time. Joffrey eyes sought out, against his will or in spite of himself, those savage places of no human development—large clumps of trees along the shoreline that would reveal what the lake was before the white man came. If he squinted he could imagine that time: wild flowers, bramble, berries and unmanaged rough for large swaths across the opposite shore. The young braves would have marked out favorite berry patches, fishing ponds and inlets and perches from which to contemplate the soaring mountain. Lots of outdoor sex?

The south shore of Lake Washington goes on and on, becoming wider and strangely intimate. Then you come to the cove of Seward Park, an exquisite frame of tranquil water and forest land like few places on earth. Some sections of the lake seem as raw as the day they were made, cut by giant glaciers. But Seward was softened by the planted poplar rows and the cement walking path along the shoreline. Across the narrow road a dirt bank and hemlock stands alternate with magazine cover homes and their broad yielding lawns. The unambiguous primary colors startle in their outsized simplicity: pale sky, dark blue lake, green grass. Everything held a slightly fluorescent tinge, Joffrey, with a musical note coming off the lake. The joggers and walkers and bicyclists of every shape and color seemed endowed with riches by just being here. Joffrey could only gather his unbounded feelings by imagining himself God, the Creator and telling himself he was happy with his creation including the men, women and kids roiling under the slow lazy, cement-truck twirling sun of this afternoon trust. He pronounced it Good. As far as he could tell, Man had not yet eaten from the tree or slain his brother; all was blessing and bounty in the Garden.

No, the original inhabitants were gone.

Chapter 1

August 16, 2010 § 3 Comments

Crocodile Words

By Dex Quire

.     .     .

“My name is Joffrey Simpson O’Day!”

The young man introduced himself like that everywhere—at Sunbreak City University, at Clearhaeuser Timber Company and at Dayfresh House. He announced himself like that to the Famous Writing Professor and her class at Theodore Roethke Writers’ House. He presented himself thusly to Fontina Blanchet, the woman he wanted as a girlfriend. He hoped others saw him as he saw himself: cheerful, tallish, broad-shouldered, long-haired, smiling, chipped-toothed, bobbing slightly—happy to be living in Sunbreak City. If they didn’t, oh well. Joffrey couldn’t worry about them. You came to the big city to do big things, to do what you wanted; to see if living and dreaming really had anything to do with each other.

He thought he might be doing OK. Twenty-nine years old and he had survived over ten years of hard, dangerous work felling trees, working around heavy machinery. He had seen men maimed and killed. His friend Barry almost fell down the chipper—a long steel tube with spinning blades at bottom that swallowed naked logs and turned them into potato chip-sized chips. When you work around heavy things, machines twenty times bigger than you—someone’s bound to get hurt an old logger with seven fingers once told him.

He decided to finish college. Clearhaeuser Timber, Joffrey’s employer, arranged for him to receive a Pammy—a Pamela Prefontaine Scholarship—to obtain a B.A. degree in forestry at Sunbreak City University. Joffrey was learning that the Sunbreak City rich knew how to arrange these things. He would take a degree and set himself on a management path at Clearhaeuser Timber.

Joffrey arrived in Sunbreak City last summer and it was now mid-winter and life seemed to be getting better by the month. By the week even. He had a free studio apartment at Dayfresh House in exchange for helping out with a contingent of recovering drug addicts. For elective credit he was taking an off-campus, creative writing class held at Theodore Roethke House, taught by the Famous Writing Professor (FWP). For companionship he was seeing Fontina Blanchet. He thought about her constantly. Maybe he was in love. He seemed to be making friends and they seemed to be interesting friends.

Yes, life was getting better.

.     .     .

Joffrey Simpson O’Day sat at his desk in his room at Dayfresh House and wrote out the following letter in longhand:

To: Snowden Branch, President of Sunbreak City University and my fellow students of the same:

Last Thursday our student paper—the esteemed Sunbreak City University Daily—included an eight-page literary supplement that was the culmination of my graduate-level, writing class project called Gods and Monsters. Though we were few—five in all—my classmates and I covered a lot of ground satirizing some aspect of Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, atheism and, in my case, Islam. Last year I read through the whole Koran (in English) and thought it lacked the enticing storytelling mechanisms of the Old Testament and the lived testimonials of the New. Its overall tone I found dry and sententious. For my assignment I thought I would enliven the Koran by passing it through various “dialectizers” I found on the Internet. These were the dialects of Valley Girl, Pig Latin, Barney Frank (or Elmer Fudd), and Pornolizer.

To these dialectized passages I added my own shaping, editorial hand.

Perhaps I was wrong. If I have offended anyone’s beliefs with my dialectized Korans I do apologize sincerely. I was not trying to belittle a faith. Wrongly, I did not give the whole assignment the thought I should have. Please believe me when I state that my motives were playful rather than malicious.

Again, I sincerely apologize.

Joffrey Simpson O’Day

Student Number: 48730912

Joffrey tore the paper he had just written on—in half, in quarters, in eighths and threw the bits into the small garbage can by his desk.

.     .     .

Joffrey Simpson O’Day sat at his desk in his room at Dayfresh House and wrote out the following letter in longhand:

To: Snowden Branch, President of Sunbreak City University:

Last Thursday various dialectized selections of The Koran that I wrote up for a graduate-level writing course appeared as part of a literary insert in our student paper, The Sunbreak City University Daily. I took sections of The Koran and passed them through an online “dialectizer” which stamped the passages into speech patterns or ‘dialects’ of Valley Girl, Pig Latin, Barney Frank (or Elmer Fudd), and Pornolizer.

I am aware that my writing project offended many greatly: I have been charged with hate speech by the faculty senate and the student government; a portion of the faculty, in fact, formed a “Group of 88” to circulate a manifesto that “would keep all students free from spiritual assault”. My Pamela Prefontaine Scholarship has come under scrutiny; the editors of The Daily printed a two-page apology and filled out the rest of the issue with proper English translations of the Koran. The board of trustees, the provost, the deans of all the colleges and the coaches association (you have informed me) believe my enrollment at SCU an ongoing affront to the institution. And SCU alumnus, Prince Saleh Hashim (Class of ‘96) of Abu Dhabi, has cancelled his support for construction of the Ghalib Friendship Pavillion (the new wing of the graduate library) and frozen funds that represent a hundred million dollar endowment to Sunbreak City University.

On Monday you told me that a written apology—publishable as a concurrent editorial in the Sunbreak City Deintellignecer, and The Sunbreak City Times—would go far in making all of this go away. You urged me to deliver this apology onstage to the students, faculty and community members attending the upcoming Sunbreak City University Candlelight Festival of Affirmation. You also suggested I present myself before the mosque closest to the university to apologize to everyone including all Muslims all over the world.

I did not anticipate this overwhelming reaction—a reaction, I believe, far out of proportion to anything I actually did. I was having a bit of fun while carrying out a writing assignment on my way towards picking up a couple humanities credits.

Please receive my apology then; apology from the Ancient Greek, άπολογία, as in a defense of one’s actions, beliefs or of a cause.

Most Sincerely,

Joffrey Simpson O’Day

Student Number: 48730912

p.s. As follows:

.     .     .

Yes, Joffrey, life seemed to be getting better.

Until now.

Last week Joffrey’s dialectized versions of The Koran appeared as a literary insert in the high-circulation student newspaper, The Sunbreak City University Daily.

He should have known. Joffrey, you should have known, he told himself, sitting at his desk, looking at a blank piece of paper in front of him.

At least he was living in Sunbreak City; he felt embedded by the city or the city by him. He felt as though he had walked into a wall map of the city and not come out, happily.

.     .     .

The Famous Writing Professor (FWP) sat in her office crying into the sweater-padded elbow of her right arm while laying down a few blind, left-hand piano chords until she found a wad of Kleenex. Weeping! She hadn’t cried since she was that victim, so long ago, that battered young wife running through the night, rain-nicked, hysterical, pounding on the door of the First Hill Women’s Shelter.

She dried her face with the tissues. Why had she chosen the theme God’s and Monsters? A religious theme? Why? Why had she told her students she would refrain from reviewing their final stories? And, Dear God, why had she arranged for those stories to appear—a literary insert—in the student newspaper? Vanity? She wanted her students to love her. To trust her just as she was endowing them with so much trust. I wanted to be loved, trusted. Revered! The FWP moaned.

She checked her tears and looked at her face in a hand mirror. She imagined thousands of students, local businessmen or businesswomen by the thousands clutching at the literary insert as it fell from this morning’s Sunbreak City University Daily. God, what was the circulation? 25,000? 30,000? The readers would glance at Joffrey Simpson O’Day’s Barney Frank Koran or Valley Girl Koran and they would laugh. Would they notice the famous writing professor’s name across the literary insert? That it was her class? Sponsored by Theodore Roethke Writer’s House? Would they laugh and then look around furtively? Ease the insert back into the Daily? The Pig Latin Koran indeed, The Pornolized Koran indeed.

The FWP glanced at the literary insert now spread out on her desk. She looked away quickly but she couldn’t unsee the title: The Koran: Four Translations by Joffrey Simpson O’Day. The rare winter light coming through her office window drew her eyes back to the print and she read:

The Valley Girl Koran:

Surely, like, Allah, who is awesome duuuuude! does not do, like, injustice to thuh weight of an atom, and if it is like, ya know, a totally grody deed that, duuuude, multiplies it and gives from Himself a totally awesum reward.

She couldn’t read on. She was afraid she would begin to laugh.  There was more: there was the Barney Frank Koran. There was the Pig Latin Koran. And worse, there was the Pornolized Koran. Why did that kid—he was a kid, after all, full of earnest muscle and mischief—why did he have to write up four versions?

But she kept reading. How could she ignore the Pornolized Koran?

…And it does not behoove a shafting believer to kill a muff sniffing believer except by mistake, and whoever balls a deep throating believer by mistake, he should free a dripping slave, and blood-money should be paid to his people fistfucks they remit it as alms; but if he be from a jerking tribe hostile to you and he is a pecking believer, the fucking freeing of a squirting slave (muff sniffs), and if he is from a tribe between whom and you there is a ballbusting convenant, the blood-money should be paid to his people along with the thrusting freeing of a blowing licking slave; but he who cannot find (a slave) should fast for two dripps successively: a penance from Allah, and Allah is Wise.

…And whoever smoochs a browning believer intentionally, his punishment is hell; he shall abide in it, and Allah will send His wrath on him and curse him and prepare for him a painful chastisement.

She crumpled the insert as she dampend a half chuckle in her throat. The official organs would not be laughing. They would be howling. Perhaps they were howling now. The Muslim Student Association, the faculty senate, the advertisers and professional organizations that supported the student daily, the corporations and local government agencies that sponsored Roethke Writer’s House. They would howl and they would demand a head.

Hers.

The FWP had, after all, enabled a mocking racist tract to issue forth into the sensitive student collective. She had cleared the way for further unsavory outburst against a vulnerable campus minority. Worse, she had probably jinxed the hundred million dollar endowment to Sunbreak City University from Prince Saleh Hashim of Abu Dhabi. The university president would have to answer for her; or she would have to answer to him.

And Joffrey Simpson O’Day? Did he write his Barney Frank Koran to spite me? Who knows? Who cares? The emphatic lines and planes of his face appeared to her mind. The dark eyebrows. Savage! something shouted inside her. She remembered his brash self-introduction that first night of class. My name is Joffrey Simpson O’Day! He made the famous writing professor laugh. The other students, five others, laughed too. Standing in front of the class, bobbing with good cheer, Joffrey himself laughed. Why not? He didn’t seem like a malevolent jerk at the time. If anything, he came off as Class Star. He sheathed a daring chipped-tooth smile, like a concealed weapon, inside long, parted, black, shoulder-length Indian (make that Native American) hair; he was tall with muscle-bumped arms and (presumably) a wedge torso, nicely chiseled and filed. He damn near ungayed me she remembered joking to her lover arriving home that night after class.

O God, how things change.

.     .     .

Joffrey Simpson O’Day arrived in Sunbreak City last summer. He often recalled those first days. He had just discovered Freeway Park downtown by the market with its wide-open view of Elliott Bay and the Sunbreak City waterfront. He found a bench on a grassy knoll and took it all in one evening:

A bold sun pressed down at 7:00 p.m. as at noon and continued to glare until 9:30 p.m. when the light began to fade languidly, tippingly like a taffy-stretched fourth movement of Mahler. The hectoring gulls, clacking pigeons, commercial aircraft, student pilots, police seaplanes and TV helicopter pilots dispersed slowly until some kind of quiet reigned. The bay was papery with sailboats pitching in the wake of car-carrying ferries or deep-heaving, diesel-motored yachts (topped with topless drink-sipping nymphs) and razing speedboats with immense roostertails. Battered tooting tugboats nosing international freighters bearing hay bound for Japan’s cows darkened the watery rails that earlier shimmered like freshly cracked cymbals. A breeze smelling of creosote, shellfish brain and drying kelp flowed into Joffrey. He turned from the bay and observed tourist families from flat states waiting by fathers twisting Sunbreak City tourist maps like king crabs. Local Sunbreak Cityites were easy to pick out: they resembled newly-minted Egyptian hieroglyphs, walking stiffly behind a forearm clutching a paper cup of coffee. Joffrey remained at the downtown park until darkness nibbled away the bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich sunset.

How Joffrey loved Sunbreak City’s sense of churning, flowing enterprise. He didn’t miss the long views of wavy, rolling rock of eastern Washington at all.

Growing up in Washington State Joffrey had been to Sunbreak City before—to visit an uncle in jail, to see a ballgame or a concert or, more recently, to attend management seminars of Clearhaeuser Timber Company. But now he was socially engaged. Sunbreak City was home. Rainier City, his neighborhood, was home. The Ethiopian grocer across from Dayfresh House grunted at him when he bought gum or soda. He flirted with the baristas at the corner Starbucks and sometimes joined the black pastors’ morning prayer coffee. When they learned that he lived and worked at Dayfresh House, right across the street, their gusts of enthusiasm propelled him to sit down and join in. He had never been around a group of black men before and he didn’t want to act hesitant. So he sat in.

.     .      .

Later that morning the FWP found herself sitting in the office of Snowden Branch, Sunbreak City University President. Once every few months the department could count on Snowden Branch dropping by the door of each professor’s office. He would pause, suited, bowing slightly, grinning slightly over the door. He was always of good cheer. His chin hosted a dimple, a hole really as if gouged with a router and the hole was amazingly, to the professor, always clean and shaven. When he smiled he showed intimidatingly healthy gums and lots of bright teeth. (The FWP regretted her own small mouth—it was small and pretty like an Asian girl’s but she didn’t have the adorable Asian valentine-shaped head, the mysterious eyes, the night-black straight hair, the fragile limbs. The Other, so beautifully Othered.) Snowden Branch would ask the professors, “How are you?” in such winsome tones that the most unsmiling, Heideggerized prof found himself, against his will, smiling, rubbed by Branch’s virulent good cheer.

This president had smiled the university into millions of government money and grants. He had smiled the medical school into a major research center for cancer research. He had smiled the computer science school into prominence, smiled the schools of mathematics and engineering to join in some kind of famous venture. He had smiled his way onto the board of directors of a half-dozen northwest companies tipping his yearly income into the seven figures.

Calm. The Valium had begun to speak to the FWP. She was on her way out. No, she wouldn’t let it happen. How easily the wrong thoughts flowed now, brackish, harsh mud thoughts, career smashing thoughts. Why? I am not a mean person. I value The Other. Why should this backflow of negativity wash over me? Ruinous falling thoughts. (Besides, not all Asian women are beautiful. Where did that come from? There were plenty of ugly Asians: the elderly women in the Boren Open Market: chinless, neckless, bowed, short-legged, bent, gabbing over radishes; made you want, as an agent of the Beautiful—for the Famous Writing Professor saw herself as an Agent of the Beautiful—the Asian community more sauced with infusions of African or Nordic sperm to even out the graceless genetic lumps. To lengthen limbs, elongate the flower, world it away from the peasant huddle. She wished she could show a lot of teeth when she smiled.)

Did Snowden Branch ever worry about getting his teeth punched? No, he was too vital to get any teeth knocked out. Slender in his dark suits, spankily barbered, spikily aftershaved, she thought of his clean dimple as a miniature asshole, a third eye. She just knew Branch had a squeaky clean asshole. Flip, keen, she thought president Branch had the character of a finely-oiled door hinge. Super agreeable, healthy gums, elevated ways.

She, the FWP, the new Guiding Light of graduate writing students who fuck with the Koran, sat in the president’s office and pondered her chances of survival. That would be Nil. Make that nada.

An old lesbian state senator gave the famous writing professor advice which had held her in good stead over twenty years of Iron Maiden spikes of academic bureaucracy: All powerful men have a toy train; try to find out what it is. It always helps to know a powerful man’s toy train.

The meeting happened before noon. She arrived at the president’s office armed with everything she knew about Joffrey Simpson O’Day. She didn’t wait long; Mrs. Lacey, the secretary, was gracious. Coffee? The Famous Writing Professor shook no and Mrs. Lacey told her to go in and held the door open for her. Snowden Branch made a point of rising from behind his walnut desk and sliding over to a black leather chair. Mrs. Lacy sat in the back of the room, taking notes; really she was part of the modern legal furniture; no university president would hold a closed door meeting with a member of the opposite sex without a witness.

His office was a kind of stained sanctum. A chamber lined in dark shelves, dark leather chairs and a vast dark walnut desk with dark leather trim around the top. The FWP loved that leather trim. Would she ever get such a desk for herself? It was hard for her to picture Branch sitting here off to the side of his desk, perhaps in the same leather chair with a towel around his shoulders while a gay Filipino barber clipped his hair and rubbed male perfume into his scalp afterwards. So rumor had it. Three times a week. The books on the shelves—the spines—glowered leatherly. Unrecognizable books. Perhaps they were books especially ordered for the stained shelves. “I need thirty feet of dark purple books!” the interior designer would have proclaimed. Otherwise there wasn’t much scholarly in the office. A jade plant by the window. Interesting choice. Chubby leaves and ginger-gnarled branches. The room could have been the office of a Boeing Aircraft executive. Indeed a model Boeing 777 sat upon a corner table. Along with a Japanese doll in a glass case and above both a dangling felt purple pennant: Go Huskies! The only other hanging thing was a splintery-looking dream catcher. Probably a gift from the United Tribes. The FWP fastened her soul upon it, perhaps foolishly, perhaps not. It was the one hospitable human-crafted thing that would sympathize with her lust to survive.

She swiveled in her chair to face Branch, turning away from the walnut desk.

Branch swung a plastic remote into the air and aimed it at the red light in the middle of a stack of sleek black stereo equipment. She immediately recognized the high-end nature of the equipment: the amplifier was very flat and black. The manufacturer’s logo was small and discreet. Delicate knobs and thin lines. Branch thumbed down on the remote and Debussy’s piano work began to sound. An invisible pianist had entered the room and was now playing Suite Bergamasque upon his invisible piano. Branch was an audiophile. You could detect the wood of the instrument. The toy train. Stereo gear, this powerful man’s toy train.

The famous dimple was so clean. It now spoke:

“I’m sure you’ll agree, professor, the times are not propitious for this kind of thing.” He addressed the FWP as if she were his collaborator on a major funding project and not the cause of his morning mayhem. She intuited that she would not be called on to speak much during this meeting.

Branch began again. “Everyone knows or should know that the Koran is sacred to Muslims in its physical manifestations—the very bindings and covers and pages are sacred—even the ink and typesetting are considered sacred manifestations of the prophet and his revelation. And now, through our student newsapaper, we’ve promoted a set of highly dubious variations on Koranic text.”

The president and the professor looked at each other.

Snowden Branch continued. “I’ve arranged for a candlelight vigil this evening in the quad. We’re calling it a Festival of Affirmation and Light and I would like to request your participation. Perhaps a poem by Rumi or something similar. Something conciliatory. If possible—I know this is terribly short notice—I would like you to get an apology from Mr. Simpson O’Day. You would read it. His presence might be a bit discomfiting just now. I can buffer the impact zones. That is my job. But an apology from the writer himself might have an ameliorating effect. We can’t go back in time; an apology is as close as we can get to a time machine.”

The famous writing professor nodded.

President Branch spoke: “The leaders of the various student groups will be there as will our chaplains. The editor of the student paper has committed. I see two ways this can go and neither of the contingencies is inevitable. The one—and the one we hope for—is that this will die down and nothing much will happen. The satire of Koranic text in question depends upon a fairly intimate tracking of American cartoons and culture in general. The other—and the one we don’t want—is that a simple writing assignment will ignite, or go viral as the kids say, and the forces of misunderstanding combust—and take us down with them. I’d like to prevent that. I don’t want the school to get tagged with encouraging religious intolerance and all the rest. As you can imagine, we are highly vulnerable to lawsuits, controversy, scandal.”

“I know exactly what I did wrong, president Branch,” the FWP said. “I told the students not to show their work to the public and I myself didn’t review it before it went to press. That was wrong. Pilot error.”

Snowden Branch looked down. The professor thought she saw him tremble with an effort of self-control. Maybe she shouldn’t have said anything. She had always thought that honest apology was better than nothing.

She felt the obliterating effect of cornered male power. Branch was angry. So this was it. The beast. The thing that she and her colleagues teased about but never really seen. Male power, no it wasn’t a turn on. Could it be that everything she had trained for was an illusion? Were women so contingent upon male gentility?

“We absolutely must get in front of this,” said Branch. He paused and his silence nudged the professor. “Is there anything you would like me to do, specifically?” she asked.

President Branch stood up and walked to the window behind his desk. The FWP understood that the conversation would now dive to a deeper level. The president needed to declaim, to defend his school. Snowden Branch fingered the chubby leaves of a jade plant. He dusted the leaves with his thumb and forefinger while he spoke:

“If we are building a universal culture, and I believe we are, we must be all the bigger for it. It is incumbent upon us to shepherd the least experienced cultures, culture-ward. We either are or we are not representatives of civilizational largesse. As such we have a responsibility to the less big, the less powerful. Just because we can do something does not mean we have to do it. We can’t be seen endorsing adolescent hijinks. We’ve got to be bigger than that. The university is not an echo chamber, but neither is it blotting paper—everything to everybody. We are a community of conversation and we can set ground rules. We can and do abide free speech insofar as it allows us to maintain community; there isn’t much conversation in a shattered community. A great university must stand as exemplar of its universal greatness. The university should set the example for wider society by treating its diverse student population with respect. There is no law that every group new to America be demonized or ridiculed. It is no crime against the first amendment to encourage considerate behavior; sometimes courtesy is revolutionary. We are evolving a world culture here whether we like it or not. And what is to be gained by wiping our feet on the sacred mats of another culture? Freedom of speech? People evolve towards freedom. By knocking them down with insults don’t we hamper their progress towards those goals that we want them to move towards?”

Branch was rehearsing, the professor understood, his speech for tonight’s gathering. Candlelight, folksongs, handmade posters. Or possibly their whole meeting was being recorded. The red light from the stereo system was blinking on and off. She agreed with everything president Branch said but she wished he would talk about her. What now? What now for the nationally recognized writing professor? And her high-profile writing program?

Snowden Branch must have read her thoughts. He looked up from his jade plant and looked at her. She blinked. He was staring down at her, now, staring at her with his three eyes, the winking chin dimple. “For a number of reasons, professor, I think now would be a good time to ask you a favor. For some time now the board and I have been concerned with our English department extension schools…”

Ken Kesey: love and regret

March 10, 2010 § 2 Comments

First the love: Ken Kesey was an outstanding writer; among those who so believe there are two schools: A) those who think it’s OK that Kesey didn’t write much after the two great early 1960s novels (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion) and B) those who don’t think it’s OK. I’m of the latter group.

I can still see my young self, sitting in the red chair in my parents basement laughing and stirring to the pages of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I loved McMurphy; I had grown up around guys like him in a northwest milltown. Wild and untamed guys you would meet at Herfy’s Hamburger stand on a Friday night getting ready to ride their motorcycles on a whim to Montana (to see a girl). I also liked the group therapy scenes in which each characters’ fears and nuttiness emerges; I like the descriptions of northwest scenery – finally the northwest makes it into some good fiction, I remember thinking at the time. On the downside I thought Kesey kept underdeveloped the black flunkys of the psyche ward. I don’t think Kesey really knew what to do with them. Why were they black, specifically? This is never explained. They don’t even work out as some kind of sociological symbol. I also thought nurse Ratched underdone. Kesey, the skillful writer, as he showed in his portraits of the mental patients, could have done more to humanize her. Kesey had the perfect narrator, the perfect point-of-view in the character of the Indian, Bromden, whose depth, stealth watchfulness, knowingness allowed Kesey to go in any direction, in or out of focus, sharp or clear.

Sometimes a Great Notion should have inspired a school of fiction, a movement, hundreds of imitators but it didn’t. It was snubbed by the east coast literary establishment. It did not get the critical attention it deserved. When this, his 2nd novel, came out, I wonder if Kesey didn’t see himself, sudenly, in the same postion as William Faulkner a few decades earlier: he had staked out original literary territory and now the only way he could win and maintain it would be to write up another brace of novels defending it, defining and clarifying (uggh, what a horrible term in this context) it–as, again, Faulkner did with his Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, after writing The Sound and the Fury. Whatever the case, Kesey did not follow Faulkner, and, in fact, declined to write novels at the level of Sometimes a Great Notion. Kesey went on to become a counter-cultural figure, a kind of old-time medicine man, promoting the use of LSD and marijuana as life enhancing enhancements for American leisure–and consciousness expansion. Kesey made a choice and I believe it was a literary choice; let’s take a look.
…the regret
Yes, you can say that Kesey’s attitude and program expressed a kind of freedom that might have been lacking in 1950s America but only if you define freedom in the most delicate and parochial of terms. Yes, America was a conservative country up until the hippy freedoms took root: hair was cut short and interracial marriage was generally not accepted and divorce was a social stigma. I remember a classmate of mine whose parents got divorced and he ended up moving away from our tight knit community. Teen pregnancy was frowned upon. A large swath of social pathology was not approved of publicly. My grandmother had a very hard time telling me of the shame she experienced when her parents divorced when she was a little girl in the 1920s. It was almost like she was describing the Salem witch trials. So, yes, there did exist social stigma to overcome. But personal freedom was available if not widely and vastly seized; Kesey was out-of-line to make grand claims for his originality of intent or purpose. Yet, it is hard to measure his influence because it was so vast. Are we better with drugs rampant and a reflexive anti-authority bent to our society? Not so sure. For KK to try to make the case for his own repression is not right. His gifts were recognized and sought after. He could have called the shots in any number of areas of social or civic or academic life. That he chose a kind of fiction to live in is disappointing. He was never really repressed. He didn’t have the money drive? OK, but he could have stretched himself more. If drugs were such wonderful things then where are the results of that enlightenment? Every college campus dorm is a mini Acid-Test cum rock concert; the authorities have not kept up pace with the nihilism. KK would not admit that individual achievement is the cornerstone of identity, not communal drug romps. KK could have chosen his place within American letters at any phase. Instead he retreated–well, not a retreat–but what would you call it? He was a father and a family man. He responded to community and family needs. Even so, we wanted him to give more to literature than he did. Isn’t that is the crux? Artists give and who are we to demand that they give give give? Still, it rankles to imagine KK backing away from such great gifts.

Saul Bellow is right: there is, was, or can be a tremendous power in writers: a power of style. Kesey is a case in point, as were the Beats, and perhaps Hemingway before him. They hit on something that young people responded to. Truth does not matter here. It is the style that counts and writers can be very powerful when it comes to style. Take KK: you have an abundantly talented young man. He can do with words what people enjoy tremendously. He innovates and sets his own course. He can do anything call the shots, as they say. Then he swerves off into gadfly areas of knowledge: drugs, communal happenings, rock festivals, etc. He imputes to things bigger problems than really exist (that is what the whole counter culture did). I would give anything to hear Kesey on Proust or Gaddis or Bellow, but I suspect Kesey didn’t give a rip for any of these. Problem is, once you declare for writing or literature you do belong to a club or a guild. You can deny this (KK already belonged to a guild by virtue of his novels), but it is still true. You owe it to yourself–if not your fans–to explore the guild, i.e., the history of literature; I’d hate to see in Kesey another American re-inventing the wheel as is our wont.

Drugs, and the counter-culture that Kesey helped foment, were the hammers that opened fissures in US society. When you hear debates about Texas school board debating this or that aspect of America, gays, guns girls whatever this is the fissure that the 1960s opened. Problem is, America wasn’t all that oppressive and the liberators were not all that liberating. There was a fascist strain in the counter culture movement; conformity reigned. These ideas were always present in western literature. Kesey claimed that Neil Cassidy lived the perfect novel, but that is an absurd statement if you believe the point of novels is that others can share in them and you communicate a literary experience…a reflection of a lived experience. Kesey, the supreme individualist, turned his back on the novel for communal pleasures of hanging out and drugs and partying and dressing up in jester’s uniform. It’s not that he was so unconventional; when you really scratched at him he was totally conventional. For real non-convention you have to turn to Kesey’s novels or to Nabokov and Lolita. And what of the dangers of LSD? It did twist people’s minds around nothingness and panic. The guy should have booted all the hangers on out long before he did. Drugs turned into anarchy which turned into a power play. In the wider culture, the worst elements came forward and dominated the weaker. You could see this in Haight Ashbury when all the drug dealers moved in and dominated all the runaway kids, and then later when the motorcycle gangs got involved in the drug trade. Bad news all the way around. Look at the toll drugs took on a generation of musicians.

Anyone who didn’t catch the strains of fascism in the hippie/drug/counterculture/new left was blind. Worst of all, the counter-culture didn’t grasp any clear idea of who or what the enemy was. Hence, the childish bashing of all authority. If you’re going to make great claims for the ultimate things: consciousness, peace, love and cosmic understanding you must also account for the lowest things: brutality, oppression, mass murder and that the counter-culture could not do. Drugs may liberate yes, but for Kesey, to still be beating the drug drum through the 1980s and 90s, when every drug was available to every frat house in the nation–was simply unbelievable. If the magic of drugs was ever going to make itself felt it would have made it felt by then. Move on is something Kesey declined to do; he always maintained that some authority out was to get you; with no recognition of how generous and benign America really could be.

Kesey, with a personal integrity and a personal magnetism intact over the decades, nonetheless got sidetracked by performance art, communal espri di corps, gatherings of the tribe, a kind of free-floating love and peace, this and that and a strange brew of New Age flimflam. What of individual striving and achievement? He wrote a novel cherishing those qualities and ideals. In a modern democracy identity comes through achievement.

As Eric Hoffer wrote, America not hospitable to mass movements of any sort, so much reinventing the wheel in Kesey’s ideology; he knew he should have cleared out the trash and cut the bullshit long before; that there was no enlightenment to be had in dope and low-grade tricks and nonsense. He let go of that vision of himself as a young striver and competitive literary scholar…as if you don’t get better with effort…what we missed…greedy as we are…

Coda: I read this over and it seems harder on Kesey than I meant it to be. I do love his writing and find his life fascinating to contemplate. He is gone now and we can only speculate or continue to speculate about his career–Kesey himself was one of the grand speculators about Ken Kesey. Surely the indifferent reception of Sometimes a Great Notion wounded him. He took time off to party and celebrate youthful confidence and defiance. The party, unfortunately or not, lasted a long time; and his advocacy of hallucinogins threw the seriousness of his artistic achievement out of whack. He lost a son in a horrible bus accident in 1984; no one, I believe, had any right to demand anything more from him after that.

Swann’s Way: a remembrance, Proust, etc

February 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

Last week I finished reading Swann’s Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust’s long novel: In Search of Lost Time (or Remembrance of Things Past as translated by Scot-Moncrieff). As with anyone who makes this claim you must squint your eyes and counter with, “Really?” Yes; really. But now for the qualifiers. I liked the opening section where the narrator sketches in portraits of family and friends; I enjoyed the description of the small town and the cathedral and the moments of recall as he ate his ‘madeleine’ biscut (they sell these at Starbucks now). Then we come to the long description or disquisition or exploration of Swann and his frustrating pursiut of love object, Odette. There were large stretches, say 50 pages at a time that barely held my attention. My eyes skeetered across the page; they saw words; I can’t say for sure if they read the words but the two–words and eyes–did meet. I held fast though; the narrator goes on and on, no gunshots, no kidnappings. Just parties and more parties and party commentary and comments about people who go to parties or people who don’t go to parties. This is all a bit hard on the modern American raised on a plain menu of guns n’ ammo. Things pick up when Swann realizes that Odette is messing around with other guys. One evening he creeps back around to her house after having taken his leave earlier; he becomes a Peeping Tom. His obssession with Odette bounces him from polite society which he comes to realize is really stupid society. Of course there is more, much more and in the end strict plot lines are not what it’s about. I think it’s about getting caught in the net of Proust’s prose style which becomes a way of looking at life…
(more later)

Nabokov vs everybody

February 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

Vladimir Nabokov, the exceptional, vivacious, singular American-transplanted-Russian novelist, was always quick to put down a contemporary writer (or a past writer, too). Recently I read an interview with Nabokov where he calls Saul Bellow “mediocre.” An astonishing insult. Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, to take one example, bristles with life embodied in many dozens of original lively phrasings and perceptions. In a vibrant American English. Or those first beautiful pages of Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet where he sketches the main character’s personality while hinting at the book’s themes to come. I want to ask Nabokov, “If you call Bellow mediocre then what are your terms for judging talent?” What are Nabokov’s terms of comparison? The Nabokovian aristocrat comes out, perhaps. Just call everything “vulgar” and keep moving; seems to be VN’s M.O. But wait. There’s more: don’t comment about anything related to current events; to highlight social or historical context is vulgar. In one interview (or other) Nabokov states that courage is one of the highest human qualities. But if you disallow social context you void a huge arena of life wherein courage might be tested and displayed. No? Yes? Perhaps the aristocratic view maintains that human life is 90% waste and silliness? Not worth bothering about; a strange, jarring way of looking at life, that. Nabokov would deny his contemporaries any creative scope–much as V.S. Naipaul would deny them scope from the opposite end: contemporary writers–according to Naipaul–are not sufficiently socially engaged. (Naipaul has written that modern novelists are too self-involved, too inwardly glamorous for necessary social observation. As a result, the modern novel is used up, nearly dead, etc.)

Politically, we understand that Nabokov despises dictatorships and loves freedom. OK. Do we then bury our natural human curiosity about how dictatorships–or freedom, for that matter–come about? The history and the why? How to reconcile a perceptive original writer with a man who seems to live behind closed doors—figuratively speaking. In America the social vibe is strong along with the family squall. Must we oppose history, society, family, school, with the hillsides of mountains in which to chase butterflies? Nabokov is famous for his batch deletions of contemporary writers. What rankles in VN’s dismissiveness (“vulgar mediocrities”) is his lack of recognition that literature is built from the group up; its nature and development rises from a necessary social swell: language is its raison d’etre. Or does literature fall off trees? Individual writers, of course, make all the difference but Nabokov’s refusal to acknowledge the social packing of literature and influence across generations, gnaws. Are writers not a family of sorts? Whatever; they can, nabokovly, be dealt with by the wave of the hand. Vulgar. Mediocre. Nabokov presents a very cool character that you suspect couldn’t stand to share the spotlight with anyone famous. Whence come the sniffy attacks upon other writers, so ungenerous and spiteful; it must be fun to mumble, “topical trash,” from on high at everything that comes along? But for better or worse human beings are topical. Well VN’s aristocratic disdain only goes so far. I respect his writerly illumination enough to think of a dozen human occupations I would like to have had him investigate; or scenarios wherein his genius would illuminate. How about a main character as butcher or surgeon or racing jockey or farmer? Instead, we get Mr. Middle-aged obsesseser over 12-year old girls, Mr. Pervert–over and over again. VN too high to bend into the trashy topical quotidian? Or maybe I am one of Nabokov’s dull, plodding, philistine readers…I hope not.

John Cheever

January 23, 2010 § Leave a comment


A great way to take in the short stories (and novels too) of John Cheever: cassette tape or disc recording. Cheever’s sentences are, when read out loud, bouyant, brisk and paced. They almost seem measured as though annotated musically. Indeed they carry a great musical charge. They give Cheever solid ground upon which to say wonderful, sometimes weird and marvelous or nearly hallucinogenic things.

(More to come…)

Thoughts on English

December 4, 2009 § Leave a comment


Why is English so hospitable to nonsense syllables and words?

Hickory Dickory Dock,
the mouse ran up the clock

or

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

I think English was first a dance-hall, drinking language of peasants. Or maybe it was the language that peasant and working parents spoke to their children in the crib. Think of all the nonsense words: dither dather, scribble scrabble, hither and thither; there is a bubbly, fizzy, unharnessed (un-nailed down) quality to English that welcomes new words and babble. Speaking of nonsense, closer to our own day, I recall, as kids, my brother and I running around the house singing with Roger Miller,

And you had a do-wacka-do,
Wacka do, wacka-do, wacka-do

What is black jazz scat-singing after all but elaborate nonsense lyrics? An early English poem by John Skelton (1460-1520), Phillip Sparrow, is full of delightful nonsense rhyme. By contrast when Dante’s (1265-1321) wanderer confronts demons howling bizarre syllables in the The Inferno it startles dramatically because the rest of Dante’s Italian is so structurally poised.

Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe!»,
cominciò Pluto con la voce chioccia;
e quel savio gentil, che tutto seppe,

disse per confortarmi: «Non ti noccia
la tua paura; ché, poder ch’elli abbia,
non ci torrà lo scender questa roccia.
(Inferno, VII, vv. 1-6)

Does it make any sense to appeal to our highly developed infantile qualities? No, but there is something going on–a language does not easily shake off its beginnings. Perhaps this ‘baby talk’ understructure explains why it is so hard to do English well. Our complex verb forms are very complex even for native speakers:

“If that had happened, I would have had to…”

Contrast Spanish, a romance language, wherein workers, peasants and Indians can, usually, gracefully handle the horrendously complex subjunctive. Our grammar is so unsettled, our punctuation seems improvised. The only thing vaguely settled about English is the sentence order and that is a distinct disadvantage. Subjec–Verb–Object. It is too rigid. Unlike romance languages English must adhere to its sentence structure. We lose sight of the subject so easily in English. We do not have masculine and feminine designations for nouns or clause markers. Romance languages can devise elaborate sentences with numberless clauses because the clause denominator–which, that, whom, whose–is clearly marked as masculine or feminine–you can always trace back and identify the subject noun.

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