9.29.2011

"An Editorial Life" by Peter Weissman

(***Prefatory Note:  I've read every word Peter Weissman has published.  Well, at least every word of the two books he's published and some of the material he's generously allowed me to present here in my blog, further stand-alone pieces to be included in his novel-in-progress, True Stories: A Nonfiction Novel.  "An Editorial Life" is unlike any story of Weissman's I've read.  From my perspective, it's the starkest and most powerfully poignant piece he's authored.  So much of "An Editorial Life" strikes close to home for me, and I think it will for many.  Weissman knows exactly what to leave in his true stories, and what to leave out -- an intuitive talent that can't be taught.  That's why his stories, regardless whether you identify strongly with them -- as I do with this one -- stay with you.  They resonate with universal fictive truths.  I look forward to being haunted by Peter Weissman's true fictions for a long time to come.***)



       AN EDITORIAL LIFE 





Every two weeks or so I’d take the subway into the city to drop off an edited manuscript at the publishing house and pick up my next assignment. After spending so much time in the apartment, it was a sensory trip, the scenery in all its ordinariness a fascination. The curiously muted sounds of people moving on the sidewalks The pedestrian streets of the urban village of Greenpoint, tires rolling past on pavement, subway stairs leading to the tunnel world underground, then screeching metal and a rumbling, swaying passage in a fluorescent lit container ... emerging to walk again, on wider, busier streets, small crowds gathered at corners waiting for the DON’T WALK sign to change to WALK; Manhattan.


The publisher occupied several floors in a high rise building, and I’d amble into the lobby and take one of the elevators, until a bomb threat somewhere in the city added a layer of security, which meant waiting in line to open my knapsack for inspection and explaining my business before they let me pass. Then up the elevator to a smaller lobby, decorated with splayed book covers on the walls and bound books exhibited in cases. By the bomb threat era, the receptionist, recognizing me, waved me into a corridor that led to another corridor and the editing department, with its partitions and desks and editors working on marked-up manuscripts like the one I’d brought.


Like me, they worked alone, but also together in their separate cubicles, often blowing off steam like those who work in tandem, usually professional observations—phrases and clauses, commas and semicolons, dashes and ellipses, and other arcana I now appreciated, having graduated from proofreading to copyediting; not looking for mistakes others had missed, but responsible for the changes a proofer would have to catch. But I was still new at it, and with a lot to learn, listened avidly to the shop talk while in that knowledgeable hive.


Was which always preceded by a comma?


“Cite an example,” a cubicle editor might reply, pausing over his or her own manuscript.


“‘A journey through the wilderness, which will take most of the summer.’”


“Since it could also be ‘that will take most of the summer,’ it’s not a restrictive clause, so it doesn’t need a comma.”


“Oh, I disagree,” a third person might say. “I’ve never encountered a ‘which’ clause that didn’t read better with a preceding comma.”


“Unless you’re English.”


“Well, we’re not, are we?”

I didn’t do crossword puzzles or play Scrabble, but language puzzles and solutions turned me on. As did those interludes among the editors, which was a mental oasis for a solitary freelancer. So I’d linger awhile after delivering the manuscript to the copy chief, who sat in a larger cubicle up front, hoping she’d have another job I could take home. And if he was in his cubicle, I’d drop in on my mentor, Allan LeBlanc.


Seeing me, Allan would lean back in his swivel chair and link his hands behind his head, an invitation to sit down in the chair next to his desk. Often, I had a question about something I’d come across in a recent manuscript, which Allan more often than had anticipated. Taking Xerox copies from a drawer, he’d lay them out on the desk and show me sentences highlighted with a yellow marker, his comments in felt tip pen in the margins.


“If a character pointedly repeats a word another character already used,” I once said, “would you emphasize the word with quote marks or italics?”


“How would you express sarcasm?” he replied in his Socratic style, clearly knowing the answer.


Which was annoying; as if he were talking to a child. But then, Allan had a superiority complex with everyone, so I’d brush his manner aside and, in this case, said, “You’re saying it shouldn’t be italics ... ”


He grinned, proud of his student. “Right. It shouldn’t. But why not?”


“Well ... I can guess, but why not just tell me.”


He leaned forward, excited; language and usage turned him on. “With sarcasm—or irony or mimicry—the word or phrase is not merely stressed, but inflected.” 


“That makes sense ... ”


“But if I’d said the word ‘sarcasm’ ... ”


“It would be inflected, because you’re quoting it ... ”


Initially, given his elegant appearance in three-piece-suit and silk tie, I found it odd that Allan was comfortable with me. After all, he was quick to pass judgment on clashing colors, food other editors ate at lunch, movies they liked, just about anything concerning taste and style. Then I realized decided that he liked playing Henry Higgins, to my Eliza Doolittle, that my scruffiness brought out the missionary in him.


Before leaving, I’d check back with Joanne Farrell, the copy chief, who by then might have found a manuscript for me. Nick, who’d been freelancing for years, had persuaded her to give me a set of galleys, so we had him in common. But he and I had fallen out, so it was tricky for a while, until she picked up on my reticence and then brought him up sideways. “Nick’s still proofreading, you know,” she’d say, “but I don’t know how much longer he can do it. The company’s cutting back on proofing again. I wish he’d listen and switch to copyediting.”


As if I might have an influence on him, if we ever ran into each other.


She had a good head on her shoulders, and a good heart, and everyone liked her, though she could be tough, especially when errors showed up in books that proofreaders or copyeditors should have caught. Even before that most serious outcome, when someone turned in a flawed manuscript or set of galleys, she’d sent them to Allan’s cubicle to be disciplined. Unless they’d bungled more than one job, in which case she was the one to tell them they were through.


                                   *                            *                              *

The walk to the subway, the mirrored windows of the fluorescent train rumbling through a dark tunnel, the Manhattan office workers at choke point intersections, waiting for the light to change, lining up at take-out counters; the bimonthly trip had almost become routine. I opened my knapsack and passed inspection in the lobby, took the elevator to the familiar floor, walked up one corridor and down another, entered the editing department—and knew right away that something was wrong. It was quiet, no grammatical queries or repartee in the partitioned room. But more than that, there was a gravitas to the silence, and no one looking up from their desktops to greet me.


I hesitated at the opening to Allan’s cubicle, saw he wasn’t there just as Joanne called out from up front in a strained voice not like her at all. Right away, I assumed I’d screwed something up, and then the copy chief was telling me about as I approached her desk, blurting out details I couldn’t follow, or perhaps was too surprised to believe.


“ ... because someone smelled gas,” she said, looking up at me, and before I could respond, added, “They found an uncashed check on the table for three hundred dollars! Can you imagine that?” her voice rising, almost hysterical. “What kind of person leaves a check sitting on the kitchen table for two weeks?”


It didn’t make sense to me, the whole thing about the check, now that I understood. Or thought I did. “Allan killed himself?” I asked.


“No,” Joanne said, “he tried and failed,” as if the failure were as bad as the attempt.


Allan, who’d done something unforgivable. I was still trying to wrap my head around it, in that tense room permeated by his absence. Peripherally, the editors in their cubicles were burrowing into sentences, looking for mistakes, trying to escape their distress, for how could they possibly concentrate.


While at her own desk Joanne went on angrily, furious at Allan, whose name was not Allan LeBlanc, she declared, as they all were led by him to believe, but Allan Levine. Nor had he been born in Paris, France, but in Forest Hills, Queens, or gone to the Sorbonne. No, he’d gone to Hunter College! And his parents were not emigré university professors, they worked for the city.


I’d never seen her so overwrought, and it diminished her. Because what difference didn’t any of this make? Which I’d known nothing about, as I stood there as her anger washed past me, picturing Allan as I knew him, in suit and tie, in love with language, taking me under his wing, tutoring me. Allan who’d tried to kill himself.


When Joanne paused, I asked, “Where is he now?”


Bellevue, she replied; the mental hospital. And then, as if she’d split in two, another, more familiar Joanne added, “You should visit him. Allan liked you.”


                                    *                         *                         *


I didn’t go there right away.


Maybe, though the details about Allan’s dual identity it struck me as irrelevant when I heard them, it bothered me afterward. That, unsure about who he was, who exactly would I be visiting? And then, fed up with myself for procrastinating, I finally went to Bellevue to visit him.


It was on First Avenue, in a hospital district near Twenty-third Street. Standing in front of the institutional, grim-looking building set behind a wrought-iron fence topped with spear points, I thought, Frankenstein; not the book, the movie, which had frightened me as a boy. But the sprawling, chaotic lobby inside was no more ominous than an airplane terminal, people coming and going, lining up at the information desk, seeking the bank of elevators on either side that would take them to the correct floor. Worried-looking family members stood in huddles amidst the chaos or sat on benches along the walls, nestling or barking at children, an occasional doctor in a white coat impatiently pushing through.

In the smaller lobby of the ward upstairs, an orderly at a desk told me to sit down. The waiting room was empty; I was the only one there. Allan appeared a few minutes later, shuffling out of double doors wearing slippers and a blue hospital gown.


I stood up as he approached, said, “So here you are!” to make light of the situation, and perhaps compensate for the lack of his usual energy with my own.


He smiled at that, said, “Yes, you found me,” low key, sardonic, which in fact put me at ease. I knew this Allan.


But while following him through the double doors into a wide, tile hallway, the loose ties in back of his gown fluttered open, the stripe of flesh showing the crack in his ass disturbing. Allan, who always wore three-piece suits ...


We walked side by side down the tile hallway, though I followed his lead, into a lounge with vinyl coated couches and chairs and formica tables. A television set was bolted to a wall, none of the scattered patients paying it any attention. They were scattered about the spartan room, sitting, except for a thin man in an open terry-cloth robe wandering around the perimeter. Allan led me to a table where two men were playing chess. They looked up when he introduced me, nodded and went back to their game.


Why had he brought me there? To show me his world, I surmised. And why should that be surprising? Allan had always been in a social setting, part of a wider world. I was the solitary one.


On our way out, Allan detoured across toward a tall, lanky figure who sat on one of the tables—insouciantly, it seemed—his slippered feet on a chair.


“Ted,” Allan said as we approached, speaking to both of us, calling him out and introducing me at the same time.


Ted’s lips creased in an amused grin.


“Finally,” Allan said to him, “I have a visitor. This is my friend Peter.”


Was I his friend? It surprised me that he thought so.


Ted nodded, said, “I had a visitor once,” and grinned again.


“Ted’s been here longer than anyone,” Allan said to me. “But then, you never know. People come and go all the time.”


Ted lost interest then, shrugged, looked away.


We moved out of the lounge, down the hallway to Allan’s room, which he told me he’d shared with someone who left the day before; two beds, more plastic chairs, another television bolted to the wall, a dresser. I moved to the iron mesh window and looked out at another facility, yellow brick walls, a gravel rooftop, a slash of the East River visible through a break between buildings.


“You’re the only one who visited,” Allan said when I turned back, sitting casually on the bed. “I’d say ‘so far,’ but it’s been a while. It seems I’m persona non grata.”


He was of course referring to the editors, his bullpen colleagues; Joanne most of all. He’d always spoke with varying degrees of amusement to everyone else, but pnly with admiration when he mentioned her.

I wondered if he had any friends outside of work, had always assumed he was gay, because of his effervescence, his obsession with eating right, the pride he took in his physical condition. He once told me he went to the gym three times a week, “because if you don’t stay in shape, no one pays attention to you.” But I’d never seen him outside of work and didn’t know anything about it.


“Joanne was upset,” I said, turning from the window, and saw sorrow flicker across his face. “Everyone was,” I added.


“That’s what happens when you try to kill yourself,” he said lightly. “Also, you lose your job.”


I hadn’t known that.


We talked about freelancing then, and I offered to introduce him to people I knew at another company where I did occasional work, though Allan had a lot more contacts than I did. Or at least dropped the names of people at different publishing houses.


After a while a man in a suit appeared at the open door. Allan stood up from the bed to greet him and introduce me; his psychologist, who assessed me with curiosity.


“I know Allan from work,” I said, to answer what seemed an unasked question.


He nodded, reassured, then asked, “Would you mind if I ask you some questions?”


“About what?” I replied, uncertain, perhaps annoyed.


“About Allan, of course,” he said, and looking at him: “Would that be all right with you, Allan?”
“Sure,” he replied, and left the room.


“What do you want to know?” I asked, feigning affability.


He wanted to know how long we’d known each other, whether I knew any of Allan’s friends, whether he often appeared anxious or depressed, and answered him briefly, which is not like me at all, eliciting a pursed lip reaction. As if I were on trial. He didn’t ask about Allan’s false identity, which, it occurred to me might have been useful to him. But that wasn’t my concern. Allan was my friend, after all. He’d said so. So I owed it to him to keep his secrets.


                            *                           *                            *


I saw Allan again few weeks after he was released. He’d given me his number, which was unlisted, and I asked if he wanted to go to a meeting of a freelance organization I’d joined. He was freelancing himself by then, getting work from other publishing houses.


He was in good spirits, neatly dressed, in sweater and stacks instead of suit and tie, enjoyed playing a word game that ended the meeting, but was subdued afterward as we looked for a place to eat. He was picky about it, rejected a half dozen places after we checked menus taped to windows, finally agreed to go into a health food restaurant.


As we ate, I asked if he missed the company of other editors.


“It’s not so bad,” he said, “working alone, though I would prefer being in-house,” and shrugged. “I put out a few feelers but haven’t had any luck so far.”


Not long afterward when I went to pick up work, Joanne told me he’d overdosed on tranquilizers. 



~~~~~~~~~


I've had the privilege of posting three other stories by Peter Weissman over the past two years.  If after reading "An Editorial Life" you'd like to read more of Weissman's exceptional work (and how can you not want to read more after reading that one?), I've linked below the previous stories that have been published here in the Forum.


"Club Manhattan" ... from the forthcoming metamemoir, True Stories: A Nonfiction Novel, expected publication -- 2012.

"Racetrack Meditation" ... from Weissman's second metamemoir, Digging Deeper: A Memoir of the Seventies (2010).

"Rehabilitation" ... chapter one from Digging Deeper.  Buy the Book.

And don't forget where Peter Weissman's captivating and confabulated journey began in 2006, in his debut metamemoir,  I Think, Therefore Who Am I? - Memoir of a Psychedelic Year.


Thank you, Peter!

9.25.2011

On Leaving LibraryThing (and why that's a GoodThing)

There's no better book cataloging resource on the planet than LibraryThing.  For the rabid aficionado of books; for the pathologically obsessed bibliophile, such as yours truly (and thousands of others, many of them my virtual friends), LibraryThing offers the finest system anywhere online I've ever located.

LibraryThing may not be the largest or most popular book cataloging site or community out there, but it's by far the most hardcore.  If you've been to Goodreads, LibraryThing's largest competitor, you can see right away that LibraryThing is like walking through the doors of the finest university library in existence, like Columbia say, and Goodreads, well, isn't.  That's not to say Goodreads isn't good, it just isn't good like LibraryThing is good, a company too good to be called good.  I've decided, nevertheless, that Goodreads is going to be good enough for me.

Having been intimately involved with one of the most active and perhaps more outrageous groups in LibraryThing for the past three years, a group I founded as a complete gag (and after I'd been drinking rum and Coke don't'chu know) -- The Quest for the Last Page of Ulysses -- I'm exhausted.  Having watched it, in truly stunned amazement all these years, blossom and flourish of its own free will and volition, without blueprints -- like it possessed a mind and identity all its own as if it were ALIVE, "It's Alive!" -- I'm, frankly, tired of being led around by the monster (and it's overarching shadow) on a leash.

Through all the elaborately executed ruses and abruptly unexpected name changes, both personal and group-wise, I found my selves becoming, in increments, through the entire wild and wacky and mostly wonderful mutation that was (and is and will remain without me, I suspect) the group's inimitable history, a person(s) I wasn't enjoying being around so much anymore.  And it's clear to me's I can't escape or reinvent my selves to my/our satisfaction and comfort zones any longer in LibraryThing, so we've split.

I'd like to add that it was an unanimous, though excruciatingly difficult, long pro-and-con'd, thoughtfully considered and democratic decision: "Yea" votes all around from Dick, Enrique, the Naughty Hottie and the rest of the lewd and rude crew that comprised us/me.  What drew the decision out longer and made it the most difficult for me, was considering the commitments I'd made to some beloved writers and friends.  I didn't want to break those commitments or my word to them.  In LibraryThing's absence, I plan on completing those commitments and keeping my word through my blog and through other, bigger, more influential blogs with larger followings (and more potential readers looking for great books to read), that I'm closely connected with.

I've landed in Goodreads, and that's a good thing, believe it or not!  Starting over on a vastly smaller, but far more sane, scale, with my library, and hopefully some carryover of friendships from LibraryThing, intact.

Goodbye, LibraryThing!

It was a blast, and I loved you.  

9.24.2011

The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus



"Dog, Mode of Heat Transfer in Barking"


Cover of the illustrated edition, 2013
"DOG, mode of heat transfer in fluids (hair and gases).  Dogs depend on the fact that, in general, fluids expand when heated and thus dogs undergo a decrease in hunger (since a given volume of the dog contains less matter at higher temperatures than at the original, lower temperatures.)  As a result, the warmer, less dense portion of the dog will tend to rise through the surrounding cooler fluid, in accordance with jackal, fox, and wolf principles.  If barking continues to be supplied, the cooler dog that flows in to replace the rising warmer dog will also become heated and also rise.  Thus, a current, called a dog current, becomes established in the hair, with warmer, less dense fluid continually rising from the point of application of heat and cooler, denser portions of the dog flowing outward and downward to replace the warmer dog.  In this manner, barking may be transferred to the entire dog."

Easily the oddest, most otherworldly (and this is not fantasy or science fiction) and original volume of what seem like an alien's owners manual disguised as short short "stories" I've ever read, The Age of Wire and String (1995), the debut collection from Ben Marcus.   The quote above is quoted complete  -- is it story?, conceptual experiment?, pastiche?, acid trip?, all or none of the above? -- that opens the "ANIMAL" section of the book.

Other instruction manual-like sections of the book include:

SLEEP
GOD
FOOD
THE HOUSE
WEATHER
PERSONS
THE SOCIETY

At the end of each section are Terms, in which Marcus defines the preceding chapter's extraterrestrial language.  In THE SOCIETY section, for instance, we learn that "AGE OF WIRE AND STRING, THE" means "Period in which English science devised abstract parlance system based on the flutter pattern of string and wire structures placed over the mouth during speech."  Well, duh, right?  The definition does reveal (maybe) Marcus' purpose in writing the book: his creation of a new and abstract language based on ... vibrations, vocalizations under study in some linguistic science lab somewhere.

Other evocative story titles, interesting in and of themselves, regardless of their contents fully-realized surreaity, include:

"Snoring, Accidental Speech," from the SLEEP section;

"Ethics of Listening When Visiting Areas That Contain Him," from GOD;

"The Food Costumes of Montana," from FOOD;

"Exporting the Inner Man," from THE HOUSE;

"The Weather Killer," from WEATHER;

"Leg of Brother Who Died Early," from PERSONS; and,

"Swimming, Strictly an Inscription," from THE SOCIETY.

The Age of Wire and String strips some preconceived perceptions of what storytelling is and can be, bare (at least it does for me), as it vividly reinvents narrative reality in every strange tale, and translates its invented language into a linguistic universe previously unheard.  It's a weird and wild and wonderful and intensely imaginative reading experience, even as it purposely frustrates the most intrepid reader's interpretation and comprehension.  I found upon second reading, when I approached the difficult vignettes as prose poems not all that dissimilar in style and tone and symbolism to Arthur Rimbaud's Illuminations, my frustration with the author -- most of it anyway -- immediately ameliorated, and my appreciation for the craftiness of Ben Marcus swooned.

9.23.2011

As Taught by Paul Frizler; or, Swan and Shadow by John Hollander




I discovered this masterful poem for the eyes and soul back in the autumn of 1989.  I was an undergrad at Chapman University, when I took a course that altered my life's course inexorably, "Introduction to Poetry, 101".  The poem above was featured in Poems, Fourth Edition: Wadsworth Handbook And Anthology, a textbook I still own and reference regularly.  "Swan and Shadow" by John Hollander was used as an introductory illustration of what was then commonly called "concrete poetry," but today is better known as "visual poetry".

The class was taught by the most eccentric and engaging genius of a professor I ever had, the late great, Dr. Paul Frizler, B.A. at the ripe old age of nineteen, Ph.D. in English by twenty-six.  Frizler personified lightning.  He was eclectic and sincerely outrageous.  I remember his regaling us of his encounter with Jim Morrison at UCLA.  Unlike Morrison, however, Frizler's eccentricity was neither for shock or show, being as innate in him as electricity's intrinsic buzz.  He couldn't help but glow.  He routinely wore loud yellow socks with his bright bermudas to class.  His outfits, fit for clowns, somehow exuded class.  I don't know how he did it, or why I remember those odd details about him, but I do.  More importantly, I remember how deeply he cared about his students, the time he invested in us during office hours (or after hours) and how he instilled in us passions that persist to this day.  Like the crucial fact that poetry really matters in life!  Through Frizler's lessons on poetry, I learned how to think critically and hyper-analytically like I'd never learned to think about anything before, explicating poem after poem in his once-in-a-lifetime class.

At the end of the semester, we had to give an oral presentation on one poem.  I gave mine on "Hotel California".  I recited the lyrics and then played the song for the class on a ghetto blaster.  I was amazed at how many of my classmates were unfamiliar with the song (but not surprised by how many, upon their virgin tryst with it, instantaneously wanted to know which Eagles tape or CD they should rush out and buy right now).  After their chorus of veritable "wows" subsided, I then began explicating those surprisingly difficult and multilayered and allusive lyrics, line by line, for the next half hour.  I hated standing up before a group of peers and speaking publicly (and still do) but I was in heaven for that half hour, given the freedom -- and confidence -- by Paul Frizler, to just be myself, trust my instincts, take what he'd taught and just go for it and pull all that spectacular word-play of puns and symbolism and alliteration out of that classic song.  I even tuned Frizler into the idea that the Eagles purposely made those guitar solos at the end of the song sound circular, like they were in fact drawing circles repeatedly with their guitars into the song's fadeout, in order to sonically echo and reinforce the haunting truth of the last couplet, that iconic and oft-quoted paradox -- "You can check out any time you like / But you can never leave" -- about being trapped, ensnared in a vicious circle that has, at first glance, an apparent (but upon closer inspection, nonexistent) exit.  Jean Paul Sartre might have applauded, I'm sure, had he been present in that classroom twenty-two years ago; but instead, in Sartre's absence, Paul Frizler did.

How many professors would even recognize "Hotel California" for the powerful poetry it is, let alone let their student present it in front of their class, rather than expect their students remain inside the lines with something more poetically orthodox, something like, say, Edward Arlington Robinson's, "Richard Cory"?  I don't know.  Not too many I'd bet.  I just know Paul Frizler was endearingly and magnetically different; most definitely cut out of the same kind of captivating cloth made famous by Robin William's character in Dead Poet's Society, and I miss him dearly.

9.18.2011

Topos




the night before departure
there's talk of trails
our topos rolled out on an oak table

colorful quadrants published by the USGS
constantly curl at the map's edges
and re-roll like they resent being seen

we're too buzzed on scotch and anticipation to go to sleep
or do what's sensible and weigh the map's ends down
with a phone book or our drizzling drinks

so we knead the topo again till its almost flat like pizza
and stubbornly press its edges down w/our clumsy forearms and elbows
the heck with GPS coordinated gadgetry we agree

and plot our own traverse here from earth
with our own eyes
not satellites

just like our archaic fathers taught us to
and their ancient dads showed them too
because we're backpackers not weightless astronauts

and so begin translating eighty-foot-interval contour lines
slim and squiggly as plucked strands of hair dyed red
into precipitous cliffs, canyons, and vast panoramas

possible campsites under pines on plateaus
or near butterfly meadows dissected with creeks
the seasonal streams denoted blue in broken undulations of ink

avoiding exposed slopes our out-of-shape asses wouldn't dare
even drunk or in dreams they're so dangerous and steep
seeking slow inclined washes rather than rockfall ravines

should the snowed-in massif get too dicey for practical passage
or the forest chaparral prove prickly and impenetrable
in lieu of our not packing proper machetes

envisioning the freedom of cross-country trekking
out of our own blurred imagination's topo maps
in lug-soled pursuit of that alpenglow without or within

as breathtaking as a red-tailed hawk's soaring ascent
riding thermal updrafts backwards skyward
in this cobalt wilderness of wind no compass comprehends


9.17.2011

The Voice in the Closet by Raymond Federman




There was that inevitable knock announcing doom at their door.  Raymond Federman's mother swept up her boy in her arms, the youngest of her three children, and told him to be quiet no matter what he heard -- no matter what -- to just trust her and do as he was told, and then secreted him inside a third story closet. Raymond was fourteen years old:  Small enough to fit inside that cramped closet, but big enough to understand too well the horror, to know the fear and feel the impending loss he'd never forget.

From the pitch black confines of his impromptu hideout, he listened without a sound as the Nazis stormed his parent's house, and as they forced his family out, Federman forced himself not to cry, to obey the directive of his dear mother, and fought back his tears.  A year later, Federman was the only surviving member of his family, an orphan among millions of other orphans, thanks to the Holocaust. But he lived to tell a story, thanks to his resourceful, quick-thinking mother, who saved his life even as she lost hers.  The Voice in the Closet (1979) recounts this tragic story in a remarkable (and uniquely revolving) poetic way, without punctuation, so that you, the intrepid (if not nonexistent) reader of Raymond Federman, are cleverly coerced into paying closer attention to the cadence and intonation of his closeted voice:

"...my life began in a closet a symbolic rebirth in retrospect as he shoves me in his stories whines his radical laughter up and down pulverized pages with his balls mad fizzling punctuation question of changing one's perspective view the self from the inside from the point of view of its capacity its will power federman achieve the vocation of your name beyond all forms of anthropologism a positive child anthropomorphism rather than the sad off-spring of a family giggling they pushed me into the closet among empty skins and dusty hats my mother my father the soldiers they cut little boys' hands old wife's tale send him into life his life cut me now from your voice not that I be what I was machine but what I will be mother father quick downstairs already the boots same old problem he tried oh how he tried of course imagining that the self must  be remade unmade caught from some retroactive present apprehended reinstated I presume looking back how naive into the past my life began not again whereas in fact my mother was crying softly as the door closes on me...."

Raw, free associative, captivating catharsis -- seeking meaning and self-hood out of that closet abyss -- I suppose, if any relevant meaning can be melted down out of the exposed nerve endings of Federman's prose in The Voice in the Closet, is what the story arguably means, assuming meaning can even survive the shadowy Hell of Holocaust.

The early, unimaginable experience of Raymond Federman's grief-ridden childhood, needless to say, seared his imagination, already a bit whimsically bent to begin with, forever, and became the rawest source of raw material he'd construct every innovative novel he ever wrote out of; whether it was the concrete poetic hijinx of his two most acclaimed (and most "experimental") books, Double or Nothing: A Real Fictitious Discourse (1972) or Take It or Leave It: An Exaggerated Second-hand Tale to be Read Aloud Either Standing or Sitting (1976), or the more conventionally constructed and quote-unquote normally narrated (though no less imaginative) novels, The Twofold Vibration (1982) or Smiles on Washington Square: A Love Story of Sorts (1985).

Federman, whichever novel he wrote, spent his entire career writing from the impossibly discombobulating repercussions that came out of the natural consequences of that childhood closet: writing, remembering, re-envisioning and, most importantly, voicing his existence and purpose from that dark and lonely refuge whose walls reverberated with certain death and a more doubtful life.

The Voice in the Closet examines in depth the intricate interstices of Federman's creative process as well, a symbolic closet housing his Muse -- whom he even gave a name to, calling it "Moinous" -- a creative construct, for Federman, as palpable as a beloved's body he could caress.  It's a long short story, in a sense, that never begins and never ends, disassociated as it is, written from the future, from the all-too-real horrific reality it recalls as it seeks to forget or reinvent, while simultaneously scouring every shard of recollection and experience to make both sense of and a less painful interpretation of the unspeakable losses intrinsic to him; its primary concerns, overarching the narrative, being Federman's slew of convoluted, intersecting pasts, presents, futures, identities, memories, consciousnesses, all communicating with one another in a cacophony of babbling voices whose collective dialogue helped him survive the Holocaust in secret solitude, and served further as imaginative fuel for his later, hyper-realized metafictional masterpieces, as well.

Federman and Samuel Beckett.  Photo by STEVE MUREZ
Raymond Federman was complicated.  His books, obviously, are neither easy reading or most everybody's cup of tea.  But I love his writing regardless.  He sought in it a concurrent rebirthing and negating or canceling out of the story he wrote -- a paradoxical tactic he trademarked in nearly all of his novels, poetry, translations, and even in the prolific Samuel Beckett criticism he offered a mostly apathetic (except in France) audience; and, a tactic, I should add, that purposely mirrored the psychology of his experience: his wish to erase while at the same time reinvent his identity, experience and history.  Who wouldn't want to erase and reinvent their victimized life inside the Holocaust?

Federman's rich legacy includes, as I alluded, the authorship of five books of literary criticism on Samuel Beckett, that character known simply as "Sam" in so many of his novels, who was his mentor and lifelong friend at UCLA until the day Beckett died in 1989.  Federman's doctoral dissertation, in fact, Journey to Chaos: Samuel Beckett's Early Fiction (1965), was the first published book-length literary criticism that tackled Samuel Beckett's early fiction.

Raymond Federman's astonishing creative outcry of grief and release and eventual laughter relayed bones-bared in The Voice in the Closet is powerful beyond words.  Its interior monologue dramatizes how Federman, the Jewish kid the Universe abandoned, figured out his life on its own terrifying and tenuous terms in the wild parentless void of post-Nazi apocalypse through which he daily roamed -- lost, feral, forgotten -- a microcosm of many.  It's an unforgettable journey to and through Federman's personal chaos that courageous readers willing to endure a flamboyant outburst or two of vicarious tragedy and profoundest pain should embark upon soon.

For more on Raymond Federman, here's my review of Smiles on Washington Square: A Love Story of Sorts and here's a longer piece on my correspondence with Raymond Federman that I was so lucky enough to have with him just six months before he passed away.


9.16.2011

She Said He Said About Ulysses




"Nothing but old fags and cabbage-stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest, stewed in the juice of the deliberate, journalistic dirty-mindedness".
~ D.H. Lawrence

What comedy, dear D.H., poo-poo'ing Ulysses for its "old fags" and "dirty-mindedness," when his novels are repressively replete with both, the naughty (perhaps unconsciously) hippo critter extraordinaire!

~~~~~

"A dead end."
~ H.G. Wells 

From the Sci-fi Guy that created one of the earliest and most thoroughly dead end scenarios in the speculative history of human civilization, War of the Worlds!

~~~~~

"An illiterate, underbred book . . . the book of a self-taught working man."
~ Virginia Woolf

So he was an autodidactic man with callouses on his hands from so much ... so much working, Virginia.  At least the book wasn't overbred like Dickey's Deliverance.

~~~~~

"An absence of meaning, an emptiness of philosophic content, a poverty of new and disturbing observation."
~ Wyndham Lewis


"Disturbing observation," Wyndham?  Well, if that ain't the kettle calling the you-know-what what!  And what would you call your all-too-public and pathetic Nazi sympathizing shenanigans that emptied you completely of your career and reputation, Dude? -- A poverty of meaningful common sense?

~~~~~

"A heap of dung, crawling with worms."
~ Karl Radek (Soviet literary critic)

Remember the Soviets?  If they didn't like something, it usually meant it was really good.

~~~~~

For more reactions, check out 50 Writers Talk About James Joyce at the 3Monkeys site.


9.13.2011

Some Second Thoughts on Ulysses



I've lambasted Ulysses mercilessly over the years.  Much of my mockery has been for schtick, for show, playing the obnoxious devil's advocate in an online reading group in LibraryThing many full moons ago that was on a mythic quest for its last mysterious page.  Did the last page of Ulysses for the reader beginning at page one and looking to read page one followed by page two followed by page three one page after another all the way to the last page truly exist, or was it just a legend, the Holy Grail among last pages of Classic Literature?


Well, I never found out for myself if the last page of Ulysses existed or not, since around page 375, I got swept away from the book in a metaphorical avalanche of Joycean proportions, and my head spun faster than Regan's in The Exorcist, and in a fit of pique I chucked every copy I had of that beast, that gargantuan gargoyle, Ulysses, down the nearest storm drain.  The truth is, I felt stoo-pid reading that book, Ulysses, whether or not I had James Joyce's Ulysses by Stuart Gilbert or Ulysses Annotated handy for help through the unending maze of difficult, allusion-ridden passages.  I just couldn't get it, make sense of it, fathom it, follow it, just plain read it, do whatever I was supposed to do with it, so I got rid of it.

However, before I quit Ulysses, in looking back through an old reading thread of mine, it's obvious that a couple hundred pages in to the book, I was still enjoying it (see below), a fact that gets overshadowed in the mockery I've heaped on it ever since.  So, in fairness to the book, I offer an excerpt from my old reading thread, before the avalanche struck, and I was still heaping praises upon this love-to-hate, hate-to-love book, love-hate of a tome, Ulysses.


The following was originally written in March, 2009:

"The mocker is never taken seriously when he is most serious
They talked seriously of mocker's seriousness." ~ Ulysses (p. 163, lines 542-43, Gabler edition)



This quote speaks tomes to my seriously-unserious (except when it's serious) soul ... because ... these words have mysteriously and instantly assimilated themselves inside me. Reading a passage like that, for me, is like going along left to right down the page line after line when FLASH SHOCK ... the page is no longer a page but transformed instantaneously into a MIRROR bearing the image of me/you, the reader, describing me/you, while simultaneously telling a story that has nothing to do with me or you. That's a WHOA moment of epiphany, of enlightenment for the stunned, sensitive reader, when Joyce, just innocently moving his narrative along sentence by sentence somehow suddenly jumps inside our consciousness and our thoughts are thinking his thoughts (and vice versa). 


Frankly, I live for such moments in literature, when the author, though decades, centuries removed from their work -- he or she is long dead -- enters into deep dialogue with a stranger way down some future, unknowable road. The road hasn't even been built yet. The readers haven't even been born yet, and yet a bridge, a connection is in place ... waiting to be made when we finally come of age and turn the page ... 


Ulysses, for me, is replete with such magical moments, but ... I fear I'm beginning to ramble, and March Madness is calling me back again, so rather than elucidate other examples, I'll depart ... but not before inquiring from all of you out there: Are you having some 'MIRROR MOMENTS' yourselves with Ulysses, perhaps pleasantly surprised at seeing your reflection or a partial reflection of your yourself reflected right back at you straight from of the pages of the text?

9.11.2011

The Voice in the Closet by Raymond Federman (part I)

(***to read my complete piece on The Voice in the Closet, go here***)

There was that inevitable knock announcing doom at their door.  Raymond Federman's mother, Marguerite, swept up her little boy in her arms, the youngest of her three children, and told him to be quiet no matter what he heard, to just trust her and do what he was told, and secreted him inside a third story closet.  He was twelve years old:  Small enough to fit inside that cramped closet, but big enough to understand too well the horror, to know the fear and feel the loss he'd never forget. From the pitch black confines of his impromptu hideout, he listened without a sound as the nazis stormed his parent's house, and as they forced his family out, Federman forced himself not to cry, to obey his dear mother, and fought back his tears.  A year later, Federman was the only surviving member of his family, an orphan among millions of other orphans, thanks to the Holocaust.  But he lived to tell a story, thanks to his resourceful mother, who saved his life as she lost hers.  The Voice in the Closet (1979) recounts this tragic story in a remarkable (and uniquely revolving) poetic way.

  Double or Nothing

The early, unimaginable experience of Raymond Federman's grief-ridden childhood, needless to say, seared his imagination, already a bit whimsically bent to begin with, forever, and became the rawest source of raw material he'd construct every innovative novel he ever wrote out of, whether it was the concrete poetic hijinks of his two most acclaimed (and most "experimental") books, Double or Nothing: A Real Fictitious Discourse (1972), or Take It or Leave It: An Exaggerated Second-hand Tale to be Read Aloud Either Standing or Sitting (1976), or the more conventionally constructed and "normally" narrated (though no less imaginative) novels, The Twofold Vibration (1982) or Smiles on Washington Square: A Love Story of Sorts (1985). Federman, whichever novel he wrote, spent his entire career writing from the discombobulating repercussions of that childhood closet; from that dark and lonely refuge whose walls bordered certain death and doubtful life.

Take It or Leave It The Two-Fold Vibration
In part II of this piece on The Voice in the Closet, I'll examine in depth the intricate text of Federman's long short story that has no punctuation period.  It's a story, in a sense, that never begins and never ends --disembodied-- its concerns identity, memory and consciousness, as its words both rebirth its content while canceling respective content out-- a literary tactic/trick Federman feasted on whether in fiction, poetry, or prolific Samuel Beckett criticism (five books in all of it), throughout his career, that served both symbolic and deeply personal functions in his unapologetically cathartic craft, as he unrelentingly reentered (while simultaneously exiting) that real and become confabulated closets of memory from which his literary voice --his great creative outcry of grief and release and eventual laughter-- was born, nurtured, and in the parentless wilderness, allowed to daily wander and roam, feral, where it finally found its true home in fiction.

9.04.2011

The Orangery by Gilbert Sorrentino




Orange you glad there was a writer named Gilbert Sorrentino, and that he left us so many innovative novels and books of poetry too?

Sorry about that cheesy orange opening, but since every poem of the seventy-eight collected here in 1978 for the Texas Press Poetry Series and published as The Orangery, purposely (and cleverly) contains a variation or adjective on "orange" -- coronas, coronets, carillons, crèmes, burnt-orange, blossoms, bustiers, roses, glare, gold, fruit, flavor, flowers, tangelos, juice, ice, orangeades, sponges, sunsets, suns, light, love, stars, moon, Florida, slacks, conflagration, flames, gifts, gaudiness, wallpaper, glitter, groves, orchards, Orange Julius, disingenuousness, drinks, trees, glamour, togas, poppies, poseurs, hair, sombreros, guava, lava, Java, jelly, underbellies, duck's feet, sherbet, wax, marmalade, and perhaps a few other words I've neglected to itemize -- understand that my apology is truly insincere!

Gilbert Sorrentino obviously had a hankering for orange.  Had he gone mildly orange mad when he wrote The Orangery?  Orange sad maybe?  Obsessed, temporarily, with some orange fad, circa 1978, like the then en vogue burnt-orange of hip interior design?

"Poetry must not be poured into molds / the man said, fighting an old battle / filled with wild alarums. / No one eats oranges / in anyone's poems," Sorrentino observed in "Variations 1," making clear his intent of writing something different.  Poems whose points pivoted oddly, though not awkwardly, around orange.

Note that Gilbert Sorrentino, the author who ingeniously, metafictively, began his most famous book with its very (well, confabulated) rejection slips, all seventeen of them, for Mulligan Stew, wrote this book of poems, The Orangery, styled after sonnets (if not fourteen lines to a poem, then twenty-eight lines, or forty-two, sometimes fifty-six or seventy, but always multiples of fourteen) on "Orange," even though "nothing rhymes with orange" as he related (dismayed) in "Broadway! Broadway!" -- is a truly remarkable feat for such an innovative poet, at least in this enthusiast's estimation, of orange-ineering!

Knock knock.

Who's there?

Banana.

Banana who?

Knock knock.

Who's there?

Banana.

Banana who?

Knock knock.

Who's there?

Orange.

Orange who?

Orange you glad I didn't say "Banana" again, er, that I found this rare, out of print, first printing of The Orangery at my local thrift store for a paltry sonnet's multiple of cents -- eighty-four of them in total, to be exact?

Me too!

9.03.2011

Four Experts on Secrets



On page twenty four (lines 170-172) of the Gabler edition of Ulysses,

Ulysses (Gabler Edition) 

You'll find the following diamond nugget of poetic prose:

"Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants, willing to be dethroned".

~~~

Upon reading the Joyce quote above, my memory free associates to a Robert Frost poem I memorized from obsessively reading it so much (trying to figure out each thread of its infinitude of possible meanings) rather than from memorizing it intentionally, back in college, called, "The Secret Sits" -- terse two liner of a freight-train-impacting poem -- laden with tomes of plausible contexts and interpretations:


We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows


First published in A Witness Tree, in 1942.


A Witness Tree New Poems - Robert Frost

~~~


Paul Valery once said (I forget the source), "A man's true secrets are more secret to himself than they are to others."  In other words, don't know thyself, Secreteer, it's too damn painful!

Selected Writings of Paul Valery
~~~

"Men with secrets tend to be drawn to each other, not because they want to share what they know but because they need the company of the like-minded, the fellow afflicted." 

So said fellow-afflictee, Don Delillo (who's got a new book, The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories, coming out in November this year), and I believe him.  I know the source of this Delillo quote, but I'm not sharing it.  It's a secret.

The Cambridge Companion to Don DeLillo (Cambridge Companions to Literature)  

"Naples Aglow"

The world aglow in Naples, Long Beach, CA.
Long family tradition of ours, walking the canals of Naples
at Christmas.  It's free. It's fun.  It's festive.  
And the wealthy folk whose relatively slim, but high three-storied homes
line the canal walkways and boat docks, are friendly--
their kids selling hot cocoa from their plush front patios.