Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is the third, uh… classic that i’ve read in the last month or so. In an effort to stay consistent with my previous two entries, i’m going to shit all over it. maybe i’m just developing my taste. maybe i’m beginning to prefer other pursuits to reading. maybe i was high on prednisone and peanut butter cookies and in my decadence, incapable of appreciating the writer’s subtle gifts.
For those still reading; step right up! Come inside the tent, and watch Capote the wordsmith preposition the sun out of the sky. Nothing informal about this writing, no sir. Ingest this wall of words and there will be no doubt that this boy has been to college. He’ll whence you hither and yon! He’ll “as yet” your had, mention your afore, herefore firstly, and tofore your here so severely it gives new meaning to conjunctivitis! He’ll out-Dickens Dickens! Watch him bludgeon the life out of his prose with a dog-eared copy of Strunk and White! So complex and sleek is the stainless steel grammatical plumbing of In Cold Blood’s infrastructure that you won’t even realize you’re not getting any hot water. Capote (gingerly) pulls the (white) gloves off (with his teeth) as he handles all of the information surrounding these gruesome murders, and it shows. He is a Victorian candlestick of a man. And, as is often the case with ornateness when functionality will do, it just seems ridiculous, dude.
Capote has an annoying habit of adding dialogue in parentheses. He seems to do this because (a) he doesn’t have the editorial courage to just cut the material from the book, and (b) he wants to provide commentary and give the raw data at the same time, literally. Instead of simply excerpting a conversation or an interview, he gives priority to his own summary of it, and as an afterthought gives the reader a small quotation from the source. Here’s a typical Capote style description of events: Capote ordered a grilled steak sandwich for lunch (“I’d like a grilled steak sandwich, please.”), but had second thoughts because it was so warm inside the diner (“goodness! my collar is damp!”). the proprietor explained (“the urr conditionin’ been out come near two weeks.”). Okay. I get the idea. and I can understand why he did this for some parts of In Cold Blood. I simply did not like to read it. I was bothered by it (“Fuck this book.”)
Also, I can’t explain this because that would not jive with my call/it/like/i/see/it style, but his tone feels like one of distance with a little bit of condescension. It’s more like “aren’t these Mid-Western types with their starched clothing and traditions just fascinating?” than impartial observation. it came across like he was exoticizing the subject matter, to conceal some bit of distaste, or disagreeable attitude towards a culture that he was not native to; effeminate, sophisticated city dweller that he was.
although it’s not fair to say as much as i have about a book that i did not finish, one which i admit could resolve itself very well if i gave it the chance, i was not intrigued enough by the story to be patient with the wordy prose and slow pace. I kept thinking of Louis Alberto Urrea’s Devil’s Highway, and how totally riveting and awesome it was. And then I would read more of Capote’s long sentences about chair upholstery and people’s complexions and it just made me sad.
I recently re-read The Great Gatsby, for the first time since it was assigned in high school. I remember Eckleberg’s eyes over the Valley of Ash, and the ceiling being described as a frosted wedding cake. I remember the teacher discussing the literary devices in the description of the house with the French doors. I didn’t know what French doors were of course, so it damaged the visual impact (I just thought they were doors from France, doors that cost a pretty penny to ship overseas). I remember my literature teacher’s visible excitement. But I don’t think I really read the book. And it’s strange, because as much as I thought this second reading would flesh out the novel for me, it did not. It’s a novel with few footholds, and little meat on the bone. Despite all the high school discussion fodder I remember, now the novel seems resilient to examination.
There seem to be two novels present in The Great Gatsby: the novel Fitzgerald has given us, and the novel he thinks he has given us. Needless to say, Fitzgerald thinks he’s written a shining star to put on our town Christmas tree. But when the dialogue and the scenes start, they’re full of gossip, boredom, and self-indulgence. Or if there’s a party scene, there is gossip, drinking and dancing. The disconnect happens when majestic paragraphs unfold between these trivial scenes: Nick gets carried away with thematic words that clash like big brass cymbals! Love! Obsession! Idealism! It’s like you’re getting the novel and the literary criticism at the same time.
When the characters get together in one room, like a gossip magazine come to life, they bicker about who’s sleeping with who, or how in the world they’re going to get more cigarettes, or did you hear the new rumor about Gatsby? Occasionally Tom prattles on about some racist book he just read. to my mind, these scenes are not written very well. Or they are written well, and they’re just well-written scenes about uninteresting people. if this was a stage play, it would fall apart. there’s nothing… exciting that happens in these stretches of dialogue. And for a story full of infidelity, there’s really no suspense.
Daisy and Gatsby’s intimate reunion is immediately out in the open as soon as it happens, and the tense showdown in New York City between Daisy’s husband and her lover is silly. This scene is positioned as if it were the centerpiece of the story. But it left my very cold. As violent as Tom proves himself to be in earlier chapters, i was very surprised he didn’t take a swing at Gatsby. Instead, the two men sit in a room in front of everyone, discussing whom Daisy loves more. This continues for what feels like hours. More surprising still than Tom’s lack of violence, is that at the height of his rage, he just lets Daisy leave the city in a car with Gatsby. None of this behavior struck me as human.
Daisy’s lack of agency in this scene is painful to read, as Gatsby and Tom try to use Jedi mind control on her. They pretend to know all of the inner workings of her emotional mind, which they have no knowledge of, and instruct her what to do as if she’s clueless (“She’s leaving you.” “No she is not.”). I know this sort of thing may have been typical of the time period, but it’s silly and disgusting to read. It doesn’t lend any credit to Gatsby either, who’s supposed to be a gentleman.
From the argument in chapter 7:
Gatsby: “She only married you because I was poor and she was tired of waiting for me. It was a terrible mistake, but in her heart she never loved any one except me!”
“Even that’s a lie,” said Tom savagely. “She didn’t know you were alive.
Gatsby: “You don’t understand. You’re not going to take care of her any more.”
Tom: “She’s not leaving me!”
Kathryn Shulz makes a great point about Fitzgerald’s untimely misogynism in her write-up on Gatsby, which appeared recently in New York Magazine. She claims Fitzgerald has an “unthinking commitment to a gender order so archaic as to be Premodern: corrupt woman occasioning the fall of man. There is, relatedly, the travesty of his female characters—single parenthesis every one, thoughtless and thin. (Don’t talk to me about the standards of his time; the man hell-bent on being the voice of his generation was a contemporary of Dorothy Parker, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf, not to mention the great groundswell of activists who achieved the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Yet here he is in A Short Autobiography: “Women learn best not from books or from their own dreams but from reality and from contact with first-class men.”)” BOOOO…
So of course there are powerful, creative women doing important things during Fitzgerald’s era, just none to be found in his novel… It’s convenient that Schulz brought up Virginina Woolf also, because the prose styling that is so admired in Gatsby really plays second fiddle to Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.
Also, Nick’s narration is suspect. His sentimental intrusions into the story feel like cheating by the author. They are little course corrections made by Fitzgerald, to remind the reader how (s)he is supposed to feel about the events and the characters. I haven’t read a novel with a bona fide narrator in so long that I’m unsure about what their purpose is, but Nick didn’t seem to help the story. Seeing the events through his eyes felt like looking at the entire story through a dirty window. Aside from being voyeuristic, Nick is supposedly an honest everyman, a faithful messenger for the audience. But his fanboy attitude towards Gatsby is distracting, and when he eulogizes him for the last few pages, I simply could not muster any sadness. Gatsby is a shallow obsessive, a profiteer, and most damning of all: he shows no compassion for the victim of a murder which he is an accessory to.
Lastly, this is a very bourgeois story. Rich people doing rich people stuff throughout. This is all well and good, but it represents a very very small percentage of American life for a novel that is hailed as the great American novel bar none. I don’t think Fitzgerald knew how to write a working class character. George Wilson is sort of close, but his shop is in the middle of a valley of ash. The suburbs, the farmlands, a blank expanse where nothing happens except the migration of dust clouds, it’s all the same to ol’ F. Scott, it seems. There’s old money, there’s new money, there’s the city where the two go to mingle, and everything else is ash. if this is supposed to be an ironic anti-capitalist message, as in… the rest of the country has been destroyed by industrialization and brute capitalism, for the benefit of the wealthy and indulgent, it’s genius. but i don’t think that’s Fitzgerald’s perspective. I don’t even think this is meant to be a cautionary tale about greed, because Gatsby is revered by Nick, and he seems just as bad as the other rich people that Fitzgerald dismisses as “careless” people who “makes messes.” As much as he seems to speak out against the ills of the Jazz Age, refined F. Scotty put on his suit and drank champagne with all of ‘em. If he is a satirist, he is also, as they say, a poser, dude.
Winesburg, Ohio is not a work of fiction. It is more like a strange distant cousin of fiction, one who shows up at the yearly reunion, arm in arm with Villanelle and Allegory. Each chapter is a few pages devoted to one of the townspeople of Winesburg. They are arranged like snapshots in a collage, with the occasional overlaps and redundancies. Because these characters rarely resolve anything in a meaningful way in the short space they are given, the chapters are nothing more than poetic sketches of their lives.
This layout is what really prevented me from enjoying Winesburg, Ohio. Reading it feels like participating in a speed dating event. There are lots of names, lots of places and job titles and descriptions, etc. And as soon as you get an understanding of one person, you move on to the next. George Willard and Helen White are the exceptions to this pace.
Anderson has all the sensibilities of a poet, and it is his sensitivity, and his talent for description and the image that are the bright points of the book. There are some great and playful ideas, such as Joe Welling’s musings:
“This sidewalk here and this feed store, the trees down the street there- they’re all on fire. They’re burning up. Decay you see is always going on. It don’t stop. Water and paint can’t stop it. If a thing is iron, then what- it rusts, you see. That’s fire too. The world is on fire.”
But this passage also illustrates what I didn’t like about this book. Much of the dialogue is very long-winded, one-sided, frankly, not much of a dialogue at all. Also, these types of images are much better handled by poetry. In fact, Robert Frost does a beautiful job with this exact concept in one of my favorite poems of his, “The Wood-Pile,” which was published several years prior to Winesburg, Ohio:
It was a cord of maple, cut and split
And piled—and measured, four by four by eight…
I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
Could… leave it there far from a useful fireplace
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
With the slow smokeless burning of decay.
Mmm. Much more satisfying. That last line is a hundred-megaton killer.
Anderon’s descriptions are wonderful though. I enjoyed this one, of a merchant’s shop window (probably because i am a junkavore):
“The honey had stood in the store window for six months. It was for sale as were also the coat hangers, patent suspender buttons, cans of roof paint, bottles of rheumatism cure, and a substitute for coffee that companioned the honey in its patient willingness to serve the public.”
so simply it moves full circle from honey to honey. it would be nice to see the best parts of this book carved out and polished into poems. lovely poems they would make, but instead, they are lost amongst all the filler. Anderson’s best passages are like hand-picked cucumbers from his garden, which have rested in canning jars in the pantry for months and after reaching crunchy bitter perfection, he has diced them up and tossed them into a potato salad so thick with mayonnaise that it overwhelms the eater and quickly spoils.
A much more cohesive book with a better plot arc and the same small town atmospherics; Carson MacCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, is far superior. And for a clever contemporary handling of a large cast of characters, Harry Matthews’s Cigarettes will make your head spin. But Winesburg, Ohio just did not work for me.
The Tallest Tree
“Mary! Who is that boy?”
“It’s your grandson, Clyde, Grace’s eldest.”
“Did he come to see the tallest tree in Pakistan?”
My grandmother waves me into the sitting room,
where the Scrabble board is set upon the sewing table,
and the wax plants make do with
windowlight through a membrane of dust.
She wins the draw for first play,
and picks one by one the tiles off the rack,
Her 82 points are begrudgingly scrawled;
a good woman, a good hostess never wins.
Stranded with vowels,
brow furrowed as a compensatory act,
I countered with “pie.”
I see her rely on tally marks
to note my score.
I glance at the old wigs
atop featureless heads on the piano,
to the eagle-clawed feet of the playing stool.
As a pupil, they were a refuge
for shame-heavy eyes,
after my fingers failed to navigate
a scattergraph of troublesome notes
above the treble C.
“Do you want to see the tallest tree in Pakistan?”
I overhear her gently scolding.
Even in the front room, I smell her infamous dinners:
chicken crop-dusted with cumin and pan-fried,
served with peas and yams.
skim milk an awkward blue in her favorite glasses,
with etchings of northern birds.
A painting of a Kansas farmhouse hangs in the hallway,
with portentous crows rushing from the dust devils,
next to a black and white photograph of her,
unmistakably a mother:
looking resolute in a plaid dress and head scarf,
clutching the armpits of a naked baby above
the soapy well of the kitchen sink.
Grandfather laughs at the sight of me,
and retrieves his cane from atop the
stacks of newspapers, post-it’s,
perhaps a geology textbook,
and clipboards, and Reader’s Digests,
which have congealed upon the coffee table.
The backyard is thick with birdseed,
and an earthenware dish full of water
sits at the base of an old pine,
the center pip of his planting pattern,
inspired by a five point domino.
Like a defective vacuole,
his right eyelid struggles to close
around the empty socket.
He no longer wears his false eye.
My grandmother’s talks with him about convention
have taught me more than any aphorism.
His gaze ascends the trunk…
For words, his mind refers to Urdu,
and I know that he is there.
And that his tree’s peak skewers the clouds,
miles above the lead feet of my youthful vision.
I had the best day on tuesday.
My morning job is tedious and physical, and listening to music completely saves me. BUT, for the last few weeks, my headphones have been cutting out in one ear. i found a way to sort of wrap a portion of the cord around my phone and put it in my pocket, and it would stop the problem. but over time, even this make-shiftery failed me. if i got some good luck, and everything was working properly, i walked around the place like a robot, fearing that a bend in the leg or a stretch might upset this delicate cord situation. so this has been happening for weeks, and every time it cuts out, i only hear half of the song. sometimes just the vocals and the drum beat, or sometimes a lone keyboard (kind of surreal really).
there’s a reason why this problem has persisted. i’m a very frugal person. my laptop was stolen a few years ago and i never replaced it because i couldn’t justify making the same expense twice. so i’m still using the laptop that my father gave me as a graduation present in 2005 (one which has undergone many replacement part surgeries). a first world problem, i know, but it is unusual and more than occasionally frustrating trying to use an 8 year old computer.
then tuesday happened.
on tuesday, i decided that i simply could not live with the irritation of a crackling short wire, or a single ear audio experience. i’m a human being, god dammit!
on tuesday, i went to radio shack, and for $4.79, i purchased a replacement plug.
on tuesday night, i repaired the very headphones which were generating so much negative energy in my day. i cut off a portion of the cord which i diagnosed as the source of the wire short, and soldered the wires to the new plug. and it worked! great god in boots!
which brings me to the word, “repair.” a word which was sadly neglected by the EPA when they created the “reduce, reuse, recycle” campaign. repair is efficient. repair is economical. repair is anti-waste. repair is empowering. so let us celebrate the sewing needle, the soldering iron and the screwdriver.
everybody: repair your stuff!
as time moves forward, the universe expands. the expansion creates more space between stars and galaxies, this relationship being a basic principle of cosmology. for the time being, scientists cannot prove whether the universe will continue to expand indefinitely, reach a happy medium, or collapse upon itself. but the fate of the universe is not our concern on this blog. i’m only bringing this up because it’s a nice model, one which illustrates a useless and self-indulgent notion that struck me while driving to work today.
this graph shows us three possible outcomes for the universe’s expansion: open, flat, and closed. there is a point on the graph, just as there is a point in a life, where it cannot be determined which of these outcomes will become reality. For uncertain astronomers, that point is right now. In terms of eccentricity, that point is somewhere between one’s teenage years and the end of their twenties.
Let us say that our state of eccentricity is like this line in our “fate of the universe” graph. the trajectory of our deviation from the norm depends on the force in our own initial big bang. just as the universe began in a brilliant explosion of heat and force, our birth and childhood propel us forward in time with pre-ordained amounts of eccentricity potential. cities like san francisco or new orleans provide strong foundational launchpads, and a suburban nonsecular upbringing can occasionally misfire with huge megatons of eccentric force.
Of course, there are anomalies: citizens of Alabama and day traders do not generate any graphable eccentricity, and the malformed curve of the white rastafarian is a subject of frequent study for sociologists. There are also those whose eccentricity has only a vestigial significance like a tailbone. The thrust of a Mormon childhood is typically graphed as a small burst of quirkiness (severe caffeine limitation), which stabilizes into a classically flat starch and checkbook existence.
Just like the universe in the graph, if one’s eccentricity is unchecked, the individual will be flung away from others irretrievably. But if an individual fails to develop enough momentum, they will be crunched to mundane nothingness. The ideal state of eccentricity rests somewhere between collapse and unlimited expansion, between investment banking (a closed universe), and collecting decorative toilet seats (expanding too rapidly for society).
Por Qué Estoy en Silencio
I wrote that poetry was a “ladder to a window”,
that translation was a forbidden view.
I envisioned these lines (so clever) in my Translator’s Note.
The Rory W. Channington Prize for New Translation.
My name ensconsed in genius laurels henceforth.
I could endure the inconvenience,
having my personal effects on display at the university,
really- I’m a man who requires very little.
But that was before the preterit imperfect tense.
That was before the minefield of unfixed prepositions
spread out before barefooted me.
For hours I suffered the noshing of language into cud.
After the final line was deciphered,
I walked downstairs,
to the take-a-book-leave-a-book shelf
with which I have made such sinful transactions,
and unburdened myself of Spanish poetry forever.
“horses of sadness similar to my soul,”
was how I concluded my alchemy with words.
No gold was made.
I guess I’m not much of a poet either.