Excerpts of Early Optimism, Taking Notes on the First Chapters of Ulysses: March 2009

The "Proteus" chapter thus far (for me) can be sufficiently summed up by Joyce himself (p.32, line 52, Gabler ed.): "contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality".

Got through "Proteus" fairly unscathed.  The suggestion of the Jameson's does indeed help during Stephen's abstruse monologue. I really enjoyed particularly the page or so describing the dog, and once I got the feel for what Joyce was doing in this chapter about half way through, it really wasn't as hard to follow as I'd imagined it might be. I'm finding I'm relying less and less on the guides and staying focused on the text mostly (not sure why) but I'm enjoying the journey thus far immensely regardless. I think the "Proteus" chapter, in this amateur's eyes, is definitely worth a reread or threeread or four, as there's so much compacted dense layers of thought whizzing by like freeway traffic nonstop.  I know I missed a lot of meaning(s) and important details. How could I not?  But I'm not too concerned since I know I'll be stopping again at "Proteus" on my way back down the mountain {Ha! there would be no "on my way back down the mountain, let alone successful summiting of said mountain} with the guides and Ulysses Annotated in hand for a much longer look. But right now, onward and upward....

I know I've mentioned David Foster Wallace many times elsewhere hereabouts (got him on the mind after re-reading that sad sad poignant piece on him in the last issue of The New Yorker {an issue from early 2009 that featured a moving tribute and retrospective of Wallace's career}) but I was thinking about the word "metempsychosis" and what I'm wondering (okay, it's probably a stretch, but you never know) was DFW in Infinite Jest alluding to this "metempsychosis" by naming one of the significant characters in the beginning of the book, the alter ego / radio personality of Joelle van Dyne, "Madame Psychosis"? Am I reading in too much or may I be on to something? {There was/is a connection, I later found out, a pretty obvious one, but nevertheless "wowing" to me at the time.}....

When I read stuff like "The Bath of the Nymph over the bed" (p. 53, l. 369, Gabler ed.) and "Lips kissed....Full gluey woman's lips (p. 55, l. 450, Gabler ed.) and just a few lines down (l.460) "He felt heavy, full: then a gentle loosening of his bowels," I suddenly feel very manly! And I didn't even mention the line I almost forgot about I meant to mention earlier regarding the sausages (p.49, l.178-9): "They like them sizeable. Prime sausage. O please, Mr. Policeman, I'm lost in the wood". Lines like that, by Jove, can't help but elicit (for men, or at least this man) some sizable cerebral tumescence, amen?....

Halfway through the "Hades" chapter now (p. 80 in the Gabler ed.) and loving it. I don't know why specifically I had the preconception approaching Ulysses that it would mostly be extremely difficult mumbo jumbo way over my head, because, even without checking the helps and what the scholars have to say, the going is mostly not only understandable (even with the abrupt transitions from standard type conventional narrative to internal experimental monologue stuff), but incredibly lively and damn enjoyable. I truly thought Ulysses would be a chore, a have-to, like mowing the lawn every week. But it's not. It's poetic and profound and crass and earthy all at the same time -- just like real life, which (duh!!) that's partly what Joyce was going for right?  Dare I say Ulysses, so far, is one of the funnest reading experiences I've had? {It was for a time, for about 250 pages}....

From the "Lestrygonians" chapter, p. 127, l. 154, Gabler ed.:

"It was a nun they say invented barbed wire."

Ouch.  Joyce's sarcasm is so sharp I just cut myself on it. Need Band-Aid. 

Joyce is writing some of the finest poetic prose I've ever encountered; paragraphs here and there could easily be classified as epic prose poetry. Yeah, I know, probably not much of a newflash, but for a first-timer its jawdropping wowing. The paragraph in particular in the "Lestrygonians" chap. (p. 140, l.723-30, Gabler ed.), the paragraph with "Butcher's buckets wobbly lights," I read over and over, marvelling at the rhythm and alliteration and word play and whatnot. Countless paragraphs like that obviously, but for some reason that one really stands out to me. I'm a big William H. Gass fan and I can see where he got his inspiration from, especially in The Tunnel. How many near-rhymes end sentences and internal rhymes one right after the other invigorate as they infiltrate both writer's works. It's truly remarkable how they do that so consistently, unconsciously, I'm betting, since the flow and the rythym and the rhymes never sound contrived or forced. Just natural off-the-cuff riffs, like jazz or The Allman Brothers band live back in the day. Beautiful, inspiring stuff. Loving it....{until I began hating it}....


Innovative Fictions since 1950

Innovative Fictions Since 1950

Good syllabus.

Christmas, no matter what good-intentioned people say, is really about getting lots of cool stuff for yourself!  A friend forwarded me the cool link above, and so I pass it on to you all, not in the spirit of seasonal giving, but in the spirit of Freeque's few readers receiving cool stuff that they can have just for themselves.

I forgot to turn the heater on last night; no worries, because I live in Southern California, in Perpetual Paradise.  We just opened all the windows in the house and let the eighty-degree weather warm the rooms from the outside.  I'm wearing frayed, faded denim shorts and ancient Birkenstock sandals today; my wife said she might go topless -- in her glorious buff above the waist -- I wouldn't blame her, and hope she does.  Merry Christmas!!  I'll happily bare my chest too, in bare man-boobs solidarity. I don't think the grandparents, especially our Tranny Granny, would mind. Obnoxious, nosy neighbors might peek through the saguaro cactus rising rather prickly above our back block wall, and call the cops on us for alleged indecent exposure.  Could become a very scary Christmas.  Cool.  Can't wait!

Tranny Granny wishes you all a scary Christmas
Christmas in Southern California.  Palm trees rustling in wicked Santa Anas.  Constant cobalt cloudless sky.  It's so bright we need sunglasses inside!  Santa Clause suffered second degree sunburn, I heard on the news this morning, and was late to several local chimneys; a seriously dehydrated Rudolph was rushed to the ER with heat exhaustion and sun stroke, and had to be hooked up to Corona Light I.Vs.  Frosty the Snowman's holiday itinerary doesn't even include the Southland.  He's such a wuss.

Snow and icicles are just things you see in Christmas cartoons -- in dreams, in crisp fantasy illusions -- when you tolerate er celebrate, Christmas in Southern California.


The Opera of Trees by Joseph Brinson

I hope Joseph Brinson, author of The Opera of Trees, is the energetic embellisher, black comic artist, creative and crafty confabulator, as his poetry would seem to indicate, and that he takes great poetic license with his predominantly first person narrators who haunt the grotesque and uncomfortably honest sometimes, lines of his dark poetry.

"I hope I don't die / During the end of the world / I would hate to enter the afterlife / At the same time with billions of other people / You know I hate crowds".

I hope that smirking poem above (one of the rare "lighter" ones, and it's called "I Hope" coincidentally, one of my favorite ironic pieces from the book) is more about who Joseph Brinson truly is as a person rather than this:

"Joey, do you ever smile? / You used to smile a lot in high school," the opening line from "Smile"

I know it's at worst dangerous and in the least inappropriate to conflate a work's narrator and p.o.v. with its author and vice versa; imagine if Bret Easton Ellis' readers took Patrick Bateman of American Psycho infamy to literally be Bret Easton Ellis in the flesh, how outrageous a charge that would be! -- but the exceedingly Rimbaudian and Baudelarian despair displayed in Jospeh Brinson's bleak (though beautifully bleak it is) poetry, makes me queasy when I consider what could be the possible sources of its inspiration, knowing that how he's fashioned some of these topics on the page make them at least appear far too personal to have been pulled completely out of imaginary air -- specifically the particulars on addiction, mental illness, existentialism, loneliness, or in other words, the varied hells of unhappiness inhabiting the occupants of Brinson's poems.

Some addicts, the more transparent ones, like the ones Joseph Brinson documents in The Opera of Trees, when they're lucid, will admit they'd like to quit using, yet say with straight faces, "I am not looking to get clean," as one such addict admits in "Honesty"; an addict who knows also at some level he wants to be happier and healthier, but "I am not looking to get rational."  And that's the tragic irrational logic stripped naked, of one willfully blinded by their addictions, and it's very reminiscent of the poetic lines and twisted reasoning of the characters in one of the more authentic fictional treatments on addicts ever penned, Denis Johnson's, Jesus' Son: Stories.  In "Where I Live," Brinson reduces the addict-narrator's life to a checklist, one in which "reality" is rarely checked off.  More realistic still, and yet bringing some seriously needed humorous levity to what would otherwise risk becoming major depression, is the outrageous resolution made by the addict in "New Year's Resolution":

"I promise to do more recreational drugs / And less prescription drugs".

Pardon me while I ruefully yet robustly laugh.

I think Joseph Brinson is at his finest in his more diminutive pieces where he showcases his extraordinary gifts of dialectical wit and sharp psychological insights. The longer poems, I felt, lacked some of the immediacy and cleverness of the harder hitting, edgier, single-page poems.  The most notable exception being, of course, the three-part centerpiece of the book, "The Opera of Trees," a phantasmagorical melting pot of striking imagery and contradictory ideas that culminate in a climactic paradox on entrapment and identity that rivals in evocative intensity "Hotel California's" iconic last couplet.  


The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

An autobiography about death and grief is typically not the first book I'll reach for off the shelf. I hate death more than anything. Who doesn't? But a close family friend is presently dying of bone cancer and I was searching for ... for something.  My friend's in hospice, on oxygen, steady morphine drip making him all but incoherent, incommunicado, but for nods and grunts and faint glimpses of that devilish smile that once transformed the most frustrating of days for the people in his life into one feather-light for them on a dime. He probably won't be around come Christmas, if the hospice nurse's blunt prognostications are correct.

Despite chronicling the emotional labyrinth of her devastation in the aftermath of her husband's, the criminally underrated and under-read novelist, John Gregory Dunne's, sudden passing from a heart attack on Dec. 30, 2003, Joan Didion makes reading about her trying ordeal, if not necessarily pleasurable (wrong word) then at least comfortable, certainly compelling, and that's no easy task for anybody, even one as accomplished as Didion, tackling death and mourning, and what for her was arguably at the time the most difficult (and most personal) topic she ever had to write about, losing her husband of forty years. Didion is painfully authentic in her memoir, revealing insecurities, dependencies, confusion and heartbreak that are rarely shared outside the ears of close friends and confidantes. Didion might balk at the reviewer calling her memoir "courageous" or "transparent" as she is, after all, merely doing her damn job, writing what she knows, in her inimitable style of dispassionate reportage.

That patented style of Didion's, while noticeably more passionate in The Year of Magical Thinking, is understandably even more terse than usual -- terse yet thorough. Without overly brooding on her grief or lingering in the immediate aftermath of Dunne's death, she feels it all, whether it's the coroner's or ER personnel's matter-of-factness (just performing their regular duties like they do everyday, seemingly unaware of the deep chasm of incongruity existing between their unaffected aloofness and Didion's bewildering shock at being abruptly widowed); or contemplating her husband's rather sad last words, considering his dynamic -- equally adept at screenwriting as he was as a novelist, essayist and critic -- professional accomplishments.

Joan Didion, 2011, by Brigitte Lacombe
Didion makes her points, makes her peace, at least as much as peace is possible through the delicate power of words and prose, and moves on.  And though, as I said, she neither broods or lingers, I find it ironic how much what she has to say makes me linger, makes me brood (in a good way!), as I dwell on the universality of her perspectives and how impacting they are on even my much less personal circumstances with my friend, feeling how relatable, even comforting at times, are Joan Didion's thoughts on bereavement.

I hear her latest memoir, Blue Nights, is even more minimalistic (though no less potent) in its observations on death and grief.  Makes sense, as Blue Nights covers the even more torturous terrain of the death of her only child, Quintana Roo Dunne, who also figured prominently in The Year of Magical Thinking, as she was very sick at the time of John Gregory Dunne's passing.

The death of one's spouse.  The death of one's child.  God, I feel bad for Joan Didion, reading her and what's she's endured, and yet feel encouraged too, reading her memoir, as if I've just gotten off the phone with a dear friend, and am wiping my eyes from the healing tears I've just shed.


"The Good" & "The Virtuous" as Differentiated by Ford Madox Ford and Henry James in Portraits from Life

"There was detachment in his zeal and curiosity in his indifference."

~ Henry James, from The Ambassadors

That's a quote that resonates deep in me at the moment, and one which Ford Madox Ford must've had in mind as he remembered Henry James in his essay collection of the biographies of so many of his famous-author-friends, Portraits from Life: Reminiscences on Henry James, Stephen Crane, W.H. Hudson, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells, John Galsworthy, D.H. Lawrence, Ivan Turgenev, Theodore Dreiser, and Algernon Charles Swinburne.

In Ford's fascinating anthology, he observed Henry James engaging with "the good people" and saw something most people, good or not, miss:

"...he had an extraordinary gift of exacting confidences and even confessions so that his collection of human instances must have been one of the vastest that any man ever had.  It made him perhaps feel safe -- or at least as safe as it was in his nature to feel.  He could feel, that is to say, that he knew his own milieu -- the coterie of titled, distinguished, and 'good' people in which he and his books moved and had their beings.  And in the special English sense the words 'good people' does not mean the virtuous, but all the sufficiently well-born, sufficiently inconspicuous, sufficiently but not too conspicuously opulent, sufficiently but very certainly not too conspicuously intelligent and educated, that supply recruits to the ruling classes of the British Isles ... He saw the 'common people' lying like a dark sea round the rafts of the privileged."

You mean 'good', Mr. Ford, is not necessarily synonymous with 'virtuous'?  May seem an obvious observation at first blush, but Ford deftly demonstrated how it's not.

I admire the understated sarcasm and wit Ford implemented also in riffing off the words "sufficient" and "conspicuous" in the above excerpt, each additional use of the words, one right after the other, building momentum and adding some oomph and zing to the class commentary in his biographical sketch.  And I love especially the shrewd distinction he made between "good people" and "the virtuous".  Most of us are "well-born" if we compare ourselves to the plights of the majority of earth's population next to our, relatively speaking, lavish lifestyles, but very few of us are virtuous enough to consider (let alone reach toward in some kind of meaningful assistance) that "dark sea" of humanity from our "self-sufficient rafts".

I don't yet know enough about Henry James or Ford Madox Ford to judge with confidence whether they were merely "good" or also "virtuous" (as Ford loosely defined and distinguished the terms), but considering that he and Henry James saw the subtle differences in the terms, and in fact wrote voluminously about these nuanced distinctions in non-didactic ways that nevertheless inspire readers still today to live more virtuously, makes me lean toward seeing them both as belonging to the latter term -- virtuous.

All in all, a very good remembrance Ford Madox Ford penned on Henry James, but one of eleven masters from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries featured in this insightful volume of literary reminiscences.