Monday, February 27, 2006



Because I have no shame, and because I feel that HOM visitors deserve a full-service, multimedia smorgasbord, I'm offering this charming song, "Why Sin Is Good." I wrote it, sang it, and played all the instruments--just like Sir Paul McCartney, but without the talent. There are some fluffed bits, too, but I left them in. I'm not sure how to turn it off once it gets started, so if you want to read in peace, just fiddle with the volume control. Or shoot the speakers: that's what Elvis would have done. UPDATE: I decided to introduce some musical variation. If anybody wants a personal copy of "Why Sin Is Good"--for, say, a wedding or barmitzvah--drop me a line and I'll email you an MP3. Meanwhile here's another selection. No title as yet, but it's got a vaguely Badalamenti-like vibe: maybe they can use on the outtakes disc for Fire Walk With Me. Or maybe not.


Numbers game

Steve Augustine, who's left a number of very sharp comments on this blog (thanks, Steve, wherever you are), had a fairly skeptical response to William Gass's 12-tone trickery, which I mentioned in the last post. Here's what he said:
I am deeply grateful for Gass' brave work but I can't help being jarred by the essential silliness of this: "The Tunnel was built on Schoenberg's 12-tone system--I divided it into 12 chapters, with 12 basic themes." Schoenberg's 12-tone system can be no more of a meaningful algorithm for the structuring of a literary work than the 12 months of the year can, or the number of the participants of the Last Supper minus one. Your subsequent reference to Burgess is too apt (more Burgess numbers: remember how the original version of A Clockwork Orange was 21 chapters long; 21 representing the age of majority?)...and Burgess, of course, picked up the tic from Joyce. Joyce's excuse for such numerological literary voodoo was probably a case of OCD-flavored genius meeting Jesuitical cryptomania.

But how can modern Gass pretend that a numerical motif in any way evokes a corresponding musical effect (12-tone, pentatonic or otherwise) in prose? It's really not a question of the effect being " most readers"...there's nothing there to be heard, not even synesthetically, in the 12x12 motif, even for the most sensitive score-reader on Earth.

I only make a big deal about it because I think this is a (subconscious?) left-over from the extra-literary effects once used to sell literary art to the masses (nowadays we just use sex or personal tragedy)...the writer as Wizard; the reader as Rube.
This is funny, vehemant, and (I think) about seventy percent correct. I agree, there is no real correspondence between Gass's structural motif and Schoenberg's music--not even, as Steve says, "for the most sensitive score-reader on Earth." That was what I meant to suggest, perhaps too gently, by saying that the resemblance would be inaudible to most readers. In that sense, yes, Gass is being silly. But if this enables him to finish the book, it's a practical sort of silliness. Of course I prefer that the author dismantle his theoretical scaffolding once he's done and cart it away, so I don't have to keep stumbling over it. Even so theory-mad a composer as Schoenberg himself came to a similar conclusion. Here's what he wrote in a 1944 letter to Roger Sessions:
And finally I want to mention what I consider the greatest value for a possible appreciation of my music: that you say, one must listen to it in the same manner as to every other kind of music, forget the theories, the twelve-tone method, the dissonances, etc., and, I would add, if possible the author.

Friday, February 24, 2006


Tunnel vision

In a recent interview, William Gass made clear his distaste for scene-setting details--the state of the author's manicure, the color of his tie--so I won't dwell on the clothes he wore on Wednesday night at the Housing Works Café, where he was celebrating the new audio version of The Tunnel. I will say that Gass, white-haired and bespectacled, looked to be a plump but prosperous 81. He sat patiently onstage during the introduction by Lorin Cuoco, who helped him to found the International Writers Center in St. Louis. And then, before he could utter a word, we got a taste of the audio-verite Tunnel, recorded by the author himself in patient, Midwestern cadences. It begins: "What I have to tell you is as long as life…"

Give the nature of the book itself, you couldn't find a more appropriate opening salvo. Gass originally published The Tunnel in 1995, after decades of intense labor, and it was greeted with both high praise (Michael Silverblatt called it "the most beautiful, most complex, most disturbing novel to be published in my lifetime") and hyperbolic disdain. Nobody was neutral. Either you adored the author's no-holds-barred approach to literary modernism or found it absolutely intolerable. There was, however, a single fact upon which all readers could agree: this was one long novel, nearly 700 pages of high-density prose. Contemplating an audio edition, a less courageous company might well suggest some judicious trimming. But the fine folks Dalkey Archive haven't abridged a single page. Gass recorded the entire novel in a St. Louis jingle studio last spring and summer. And thanks to the miracle of MP3 compression, Dalkey has squeezed this 45-hour marathon onto a mere three discs, neatly packaged with Gass's own artwork and his twelve Philippics (the closest he ever came to supplying Cliff's Notes for his daunting masterwork.)

While the sentences motored along, Gass sat motionlessly on the stage, blinking, staring into the middle distance. He seemed almost relieved when the live-action part of the show resumed. Cuoco began the interview proper with a discussion of the recording sessions. Gass had felt most comfortable with one-hour installments, which he then defined as his characteristic breath—let's say, his unit of composition: "I'm talking about how long a particular piece of prose would tend to go on before finding some emotional conclusion." For Gass this is no arbitrary measure. He really does peg it to the physical process of respiration. "Poetry, of course, is created out of our unused breath," he argues. "It rides, so to speak, on carbon dioxide. You're using up what you've taken in, or thought about, and then exhaling."

Was it difficult for Gass to read aloud certain sections of his novel? Again, his answer stressed the sheer physicality of composition, so at odds with its wispy and insubstantial outcome. "My writing is very chewy," he notes. "I had already mouthed the words on every page, many times. I mumbled the words as I did them. (The curses I usually left out.) Still, reading the book aloud did have a tiring effect on me. Valery said: 'Every bad sentence you write trails behind you like a monster.' That constant reminder made the recording a tough process. By now I'm thoroughly sick and tired of the novel!"

Now Cuoco turned to the original composition of The Tunnel. How did Gass know when he was actually done with his loose-and-baggy opus? He was finished, he explained, "when I reached the final sentence, which I had written 15 years before. During my final year of work on the book, I wrote an entire half of it, and I knew that sentence was waiting for me." Put that way, it all sounds easy: a cakewalk. But Gass spent decades on the novel--there are conflicting reports, but according to Dalkey he clocked a good thirty years--and his account of the structural complications made it clear that there were multiple migraines along the way. "Like slow-moving molasses," he recalled, "the book was always creeping away in all directions." To keep this chaotic seepage in check, he erected a number of formal structures, including some dodecaphonic lathe-and-plaster work: "The Tunnel was built on Schoenberg's 12-tone system--I divided it into 12 chapters, with 12 basic themes." (Like the Eroica-shaped structure of Anthony Burgess's Napoleon Symphony, this musical monkey business will probably be invisible--or inaudible--to most readers.)

Nor did Gass wrap the project up with a smile on his face. Did he feel, having finally tunneled his way through to that last sentence, that he "owned the language?" The very idea elicited a chuckle, and Gass cited Stanley Elkin's remark on the same theme: "I felt as though the language owned me. No, I felt very little as I finished the book, except--well, that’s over.” As was the conversation. But Cuoco and Gass had one more treat for the audience: a selection of outtakes from the recording sessions. We sat there in amusement while Gass stumbled in front of the microphone, most often when he hit a scatological pothole. After several attempts to render the celebrated "fuck-a-duck" passage, he was on the verge of giving up. "No, I don't want to do it again," he told the engineer. Luckily for his legion of fans--many whom had packed the reading, and stood patiently on the autograph line with the new Tunnel paperback or stacked, antediluvian editions of Omensetter's Luck or Fiction and the Figures of Life--the author gave it another shot. When it comes to perseverance, nobody does it better than William Gass.

Friday, February 17, 2006


Whither blogs?

I've seen surprisingly little mention of the splashy New York feature on blogging, with that Ric Ocasek lookalike on the cover. The predictable stress is on gossip and gadgets--and on money, despite the fact that most bloggers will never make a penny for their efforts. Clive Thompson comes to praise Nick Denton, not to bury him. Yet the author is fairly frank about the miserable odds of breaking into the big time. The playing field, folks, is anything but level. In fact it's got a positively alpine tilt to it:
By all appearances, the blog boom is the most democratized revolution in media ever. Starting a blog is ridiculously cheap; indeed, blogging software and hosting can be had for free online. There are also easy-to-use ad services that, for a small fee, will place advertisements from major corporations on blogs, then mail the blogger his profits. Blogging, therefore, should be the purest meritocracy there is. It doesn't matter if you're a nobody from the sticks or a well-connected Harvard grad. If you launch a witty blog in a sexy niche, if you’re good at scrounging for news nuggets, and if you're dedicated enough to post around the clock--well, there's nothing separating you from the big successful bloggers, right? I can do that.

In theory, sure. But if you talk to many of today's bloggers, they'll complain that the game seems fixed. They've targeted one of the more lucrative niches--gossip or politics or gadgets (or sex, of course)--yet they cannot reach anywhere close to the size of the existing big blogs. It's as if there were an A-list of a few extremely lucky, well-trafficked blogs--then hordes of people stuck on the B-list or C-list, also-rans who can't figure out why their audiences stay so comparatively puny no matter how hard they work. "It just seems like it's a big in-party," one blogger complained to me.
Whiner! Yet the guy (or gal) is quite right about the law of diminishing returns. I hate to say I told you so, but in a piece I wrote for the Washington Post in April 2004--before I climbed aboard the navel-gazing bandwagon myself--I already envisioned a nascent star system. Here's what I wrote:
No doubt a pecking order will gradually materialize, since even cyberspace operates according to the familiar logic of Animal Farm: All bloggers are created equal, but some are more equal than others. There will be stars, contract players, boffo traffic numbers. There will be a proliferation of advertising on the most visible sites--there is already, in fact--and a defiant tug-of-war between the early bloggers and their entrepreneurial successors.
If that's not enough cynical nay-saying for a single morning, you can move right on to Daniel Gross's bummer of a piece in Slate, whose title says it all: "Twilight of the Blogs: Are they over as a business?" For Gross, the New York cover story is itself a dead giveaway that blogging has peaked. "Being plastered on the front of a national magazine is fatal for an investment trend," he writes. "Remember Time's infamous anointing of Jeffrey Bezos as the 'Man of the Year' for 1999?" Oh, I remember it well. (Quick, stop me, before I start humming "It Was A Very Good Year.") Gross makes a good case for his gloom-and-doom scenario. But even he must be aware that it applies only to the entreprenuerial fringe of the blogosphere. The other players, the non-silent majority of 27 million bloggers, were never in it for the money. Indeed, it's the culture of inspired amateurism that makes the whole thing so fun, and enlightening, to begin with.

Breaking news: Yet another death sentence, this one pronounced by Trevor Butterworth in today's Financial Times. He reiterates some the points I've mentioned above--the impossibility of making a thin dime, the yawning gap between the blogerati and the lumpen, low-traffic masses--but he also has his doubts about the sheer abundance of blogs: "Which brings us to the spectre haunting the blogosphere--tedium. If the pornography of opinion doesn’t leave you longing for an eroticism of fact, the vast wasteland of verbiage produced by the relentless nature of blogging is the single greatest impediment to its seriousness as a medium." So that's what it's come down to: the pornography of opinion versus the eroticism of fact. Nobody's put the choice quite so, uh, nakedly before--for a moment I thought I was thumbing through the Victoria's Secret catalogue.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


B.R. & I

You learn something new every day. This morning I was taking a breather at the Mercantile Library and happened to pull B.R. Myers’s A Reader’s Manifesto from the shelf. I read the first installment back in 2001, when it appeared in The Atlantic, and had to agree with at least some of the thwacking that Myers administered to contemporary American prose. (Cormac McCarthy, for example, has always struck me as pure cornpone.) Yet I skipped the second installment, which ran in a later issue of the magazine. Only today, then, did I discover that Myers took me to task as well.

My moment in the sun comes on page 78. On the previous page, Myers is busily dumping on David Guterson for setting the following words to paper: "They rode back all day to the Columbia, traversed it on the Colockum Ferry, and at dusk came to their orchard tired, on empty stomachs, their hats tipped back, to walk the horses between the rows of trees in a silent kind of processional, and Aidan ran his hands over limbs as he passed them with his horse behind him, the limbs trembling in the wake of his passing, and on, then, to the barn." According to Myers, this is precious fakery:
The very reference to "limbs trembling" behind Aidan’s back (limbs of trees that is; "branches" would have been clearer but too prosaic) is there purely for sound and rhythm. Granted, everything is botched by "on, then, to the barn"--but you get the principle. And never let it be said that this stuff doesn’t work. James Marcus, one of the in-house critics at, praised the above excerpt for offering readers "miniature lessons in patience and perception."
Whoopee! I get to be a target in the B.R. Myers Shooting Gallery, along with Don DeLillo, John Updike, Toni Morrison, Rick Moody, etc. But seriously, folks: for Myers, "sound and rhythm" are dirty words, the enemies of good clean sense. I have as little appetite as he does for inflated rubbish. Yet I do enjoy the echo of "passed" and "passing," assume that Guterson used "limbs" to anticipate the field-surgery episodes later in the book, don’t find the ending such a botch--and still admire the sentence (which is more than I can say for a good many other sentences in East of the Mountains.) I think its dilatory charms are simply lost on Myers, who, for all his wit and icon-smashing dexterity, tends to approach English sentences like an efficiency expert. Prose is not always a matter of speed and sinew. Sometimes there is dawdling, delay, peripheral humor, and even (perish the thought) repetition. Mozart is fine, but let’s leave room for Mahler. Not to mention Morris Day.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


HOM returns, Trading Twelves, reality check

I know it's been awfully quiet here at HOM. For one thing, I've been bearing down on other projects, and for another, I spent last week in Amsterdam. Nina and I did touch a few touristical bases--the Rijksmuseum, currently under renovation, has boiled its vast collection down to a Greatest Hits show, and you can't really go wrong with Franz Hals, Rembrandt, and Vermeer, plus the biggest goddamn doll house I've ever seen and the mother of all ceramic tulip vases. On a less exalted level, I highly recommend the Glasses Museum at Gasthuismolensteeg 7. Why we ventured over to the Torture Museum I still don't know. I envisioned something lighthearted--with a final room devoted to tickling or Muzak--and instead encountered one grisly innovation after another: rack, thumbscrews, iron maiden, guillotine, and so forth. The curators pipe soothing Baroque music into every room, just to give the whole ghastly spectacle a patina of high culture, and there are period engravings that make Goya's Disasters of War look like a company picnic. No, I didn't buy a t-shirt. Yes, I decided against the miniature hot poker swizzle stick. And I was shocked, genuinely shocked, that the words extraordinary rendition appeared nowhere in the entire, stomach-turning establishment.

Not long ago I found myself thumbing through Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, which the Modern Library published in 2000. Back then I was still at Amazon, where I wrote this pint-size appreciation:
Some friendships spring instantly to life, while others require a lengthy period of germination. The rapport between Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray fits into the second category. Both attended the Tuskegee Institute in the fall of 1935, and while they were never formally introduced, Murray recalls being impressed by his fellow student's formidable intellect, not to mention his snappy wardrobe. It wasn't until 1947, however, that their relationship got rolling. The two shared a love for jazz and photography and the American vernacular, along with a comically skeptical view of the social sciences. They were also joined by a sense of literary vocation that seems truly bracing in our own age of ironic retrenchment: "He and I conceded nothing to anybody," recalls Murray, "when it came to defining what is American and what is not and not yet."

Their intention was to create a "universally appealing American epic." Ellison delivered his epic, Invisible Man, in 1952, while Murray's arrived on the installment plan, parceled out among nine books and three decades. Yet this divergence in their careers, which might have easily divided them into literary turtle and hare, never made a dent in their friendship--a fact amply testified to by the letters collected in Trading Twelves. The title refers to the old custom whereby jazz soloists would lob 12-bar phrases back and forth, upping the ante with each exchange. Murray and Ellison seem similarly energized by their epistolary cutting contest. Here's the latter on the as-yet-unpublished Invisible Man, which he describes in surprisingly gutbucket terms: "For me it's just a big fat ole Negro lie, meant to be told during cotton picking time over a water bucket full of corn, with a dipper passing back and forth at a good fast clip so that no one, not even the narrator himself, will realize how utterly preposterous the lie actually is."

Elsewhere Ellison urges his correspondent to hurry up "that low-down southern cullud jive of yours and spread it all over western civilization," while Murray takes their mutual idol William Faulkner to task: "As for Marse Faulkner, he's good, but he ain't never come to terms with poro & straightening combs, let alone jazz and all that cadillac kick dynamism." Decades after they were written, the letters in Trading Twelves remain an ardent and entertaining conversation about art, politics, race, and the intricacies of what Murray would later call Omni-American life.
Anyway, the bit that struck me the other day was Ellison's pungent remarks about Faulkner and desegregation. The Nobel laureate and jewel in the crown of Oxford, Mississippi, had written a number of articles urging a slower pace on the civil-rights movement. Ellison, who revered Faulkner's fiction, was having none of it. As he wrote Murray on March 16, 1956:
Bill Faulkner can write a million Letters to the North as he did recently in LIFE, but for one thing he forgets that the people he's talking to are Negroes and they're everywhere in the States and without sectional allegiance when it comes to the problem. The next thing he forgets is that Mose isn't in the market for his advice, because he's been knowing how to 'wait-a-while'--Faulkner advice--for over three hundred years, only he's never been simply waiting, he's been probing for a soft spot, looking for a hole, and now he's got the hole. Faulkner has delusions of grandeur because he really believes that he invented these characteristics which he ascribes to Negroes in his fiction and now thinks he can end this great historical action just as he ends a dramatic action in one of his novels with Joe Christmas dead and his balls cut off by a man not nearly as worthy as himself; Hightower musing, the Negroes scared, and everything just as it was except for the brooding, slightly overblown rhetoric of Faulkner's irony. Nuts! He thinks that Negroes exist simply to give ironic overtones to the viciousness of white folks, when he should know very well that we're trying hard as hell to free ourselves; thoroughly and completely, so that we when got the crackers off our back we can discover what we (Moses) really are and what we really wish to preserve out of the experience that made us.
Whew! After this salvo, which should have properly singed the stationary, Ellison moves right on to travel plans, photography, and his longing, during his tenure at the American Academy in Rome, for a "helping of pie and real honest to goodness American ice cream." (Here, by the way, is a piece I wrote about Albert Murray for Salon in 1996.)

Meanwhile, according to this head-scratcher of an AP dispatch, the White House is vigorously defending the way it handled the Hurricane Katrina disaster. At this point, with the administration getting hammered by all sorts of postmortem reports, the president really should be hanging his head. Yet homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend told a conference of state emergency management directors, "I reject outright the suggestion that President Bush was anything less than fully involved." Nobody who saw the photos of Junior studying the catastrophe from the forward banquette in Air Force One will agree--in fact, almost nobody in the entire country, Democrat or Republican, will agree. So what? This smiling defiance of reality is par for the course. If you don't believe me, just check out an alarming paragraph from Jonathan Raban's excellent collection of post-9/11 journalism, My Holy War. Here Raban is quoting from Ron Suskind's New York Times article of October 17, 2004, in which a Bush aide finally puts his Platonic cards on the table:
The aide said that guys like me [Suskind] were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works any more," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality--judiciously, as you will--we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out..."
The source of this sinister, smug, and deeply idiotic quote is not identified. Maybe it was the guy who forgot to secure that hunting license for Dick Cheney.

Friday, February 03, 2006


Ashbery speaks (circa 1987)

I've been poking through a library copy of Poets at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, revisiting the golden oldies (Pound, Frost, Eliot) and reading a few that I had never encountered before. There's a sly and sparklng chat with Elizabeth Bishop, for example. And Peter Stitt's conversation with John Ashbery is a keeper. During the interview, Stitt notes, the subject gave "the impression of distraction, as though he wasn't quite sure just what was going on or what his role in the proceedings might be. The interviewer attempted valiantly to extract humorous material, but--as is often the case for readers of Ashbery's poetry--wasn't sure when he succeeded." For non-fans of Ashbery's work, this might be considered a damning description. Of course he has no idea of what's going on! For me, though, the interview itself is a classic example of the poet's unwillingness to play by the rules, meet the formal requirements, etc. Meanwhile, there's the $64,000 question: is Ashbery a solipsist? Here's his answer, at least in part:
This is the way that life appears to me, the way that experience happens. I can concentrate on the things in this room and our talking together, but what the context is is mysterious to me. And it's not that I want to make it more mysterious in my poems--really, I just want to make it more photographic. I often wonder if I am suffering from some mental dysfunction because of how weird and baffling my poetry seems to so many people and sometimes to me too.... When I originally started writing, I expected that probably very few people would read my poetry because in those days people didn't read poetry much anyway. But I also felt that my work was not beyond understanding. It seemed to me rather derivative of or at least in touch with contemporary poetry of the time, and I was quite surprised that nobody seemed to see this. So I live with this paradox: on the one hand, I am an important poet, read by younger writers, and on the other hand, nobody understands me. I am often asked to account for this state of affairs, but I can't.

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