1.24.2012

Minimalist Retrospective on a Maximalist Writer, William Gaddis




William Gaddis published his first novel, The Recognitions, that he'd begun in the late 1940s, in 1955.  When the novel fell largely on deaf ears, Gaddis, who'd envisioned a similar blockbuster reception for it that would've allowed him to write full time as was awarded Ralph Ellison with the publication of his first novel, Invisible Man, instead worked as a speechwriter and documentary filmmaker for various companies, including Pfizer International, Eastman Kodak, and IBM, to support his family.

After publishing The Recognitions, Gaddis labored for two decades in obscurity in the business world, observing corporate and capitalist shenanigans up close.  What he witnessed, combined with his deep and abiding disappointment over the apathetic response critics gave his first novel (now considered a masterpiece and one of the greatest novels of the 20th century), further fueled his artistic ambitions and motivated him to write his scathing, National Book Award winning follow up, JR (1975), that skewered capitalism like few novels ever had before or since with its unrelenting dialogue.  Critics were initially mixed in their reviews of JR; nevertheless, Gaddis finally enjoyed some positive appraisals of his work he arguably should've enjoyed twenty years previously for The Recognitions -- a novel soon rediscovered and given the proper recognition it had long deserved in what was the then lingering afterglow of JRs success.

Gaddis would publish two more novels over the next twenty years, 1985s Carpenter's Gothic, his most accessible novel to date and a PEN/Faulkner Award nominee; and A Frolic of His Own (1994), his second novel to win the National Book Award, a tome in which Gaddis mocked the legal world and the United State's obsessively litigious culture in the same manner -- with pure non stop spot on barrages of dialogue -- that he levied at U.S. capitalism run amok in JR.  He died from cancer in 1998.

Agapē Agape and The Rush for 2nd Place: Essays & Occasional Writings, were published posthumously in 2002.

The Dalkey Archive Press has just reissued The Recognitions and JR.  I've been informed by my favorite local independent bookstore, The Book Frog, that my Dalkey Archive Gaddises are presently en route to my eager hands.  In celebration of The Dalkey Archive's reissues of two 20th century masterpieces that I hope will help spark a William Gaddis renaissance, I've begun a William Gaddis Legacy Library (a work-in-progress) in LibraryThing.  Hope you'll drop by sometime and check it out.  


1.18.2012

The Short Stories of Andrew Stancek

Andrew Stancek is an old friend from LibraryThing (a.k.a. "polutropos") whom I don't hear from as much as I'd certainly like to these days, but he's got a great excuse: he's publishing stories galore!  I'm astounded by Andrew's creative output the last couple of years, but not surprised by his prolific success, considering the quality of his vibrant and compelling prose.

Check out Andrew Stancek's page at Fictionaut, and begin reading the published stories he's collected there.  He may be a self described late starter in writing fiction, but I'd say he's going to be finishing great, as there's not a dud to be found among his blossoming tales.  I wouldn't be surprised at all if there's a short story collection by Andrew being sold in bookstores in the coming year or two.  I'm so pleased to behold all he's done on his page at Fictionaut, and reading his work is a real treat.  I hope the few faithful followers I have here will click on the link above and discover the cultured artistry of Andrew Stancek for themselves....

1.15.2012

Some Civil Rights Please

If any minority ethnic group in the United States suffered the injustice and discrimination that school districts routinely inflict upon children with special needs who sometimes literally don't have a voice to defend themselves, the outcry at large and especially in the media would probably become so great as to serve as some automatic deterrent and prompt immediate investigations.  But since the developmentally disabled are a minority that are generally looked upon as somewhat less than human in our society, few people care generally speaking, except their parents or loved ones, what several public school districts get away with in this uncivil nation of ours.

One such parent of special needs children (okay, my spouse) has a blog, Becoming a Special Needs Advocate, that spotlights strategies and resources for the parent with special needs students facing school district discrimination, and looking to better advocate for them. She recently posted something on the topic I wanted to share, being that it's apropos of MLK day and close to my heart.

Civil Rights

1.14.2012

Grieving, Reading, Perspective ....

The friend I mentioned in my piece on The Year of Magical Thinking a week before Christmas right here, ended up outlasting his doctor's and hospice nurse's expectations, and didn't pass away by Christmas, but made it to the new year, barely, dying peacefully the afternoon of January 2nd.  No surprise that he lived longer than anybody predicted.  He was an endearingly stubborn dude.  And strong.  He should've been deceased a year ago, according to his oncologist.  But he fought the cancer hard, battling his illness bravely, only succumbing when it had swarmed into his bones after God knows how many chemo treatments ultimately failed to stop it.

We got to say goodbye to him today at his memorial, and in a few weeks some of us will have the honor of spreading his ashes at one of his favorite scenic overlooks up in the local mountains.

Strange how death drains the life and vitality from not just the dying, but those left behind in its inexorable advance.  Even when it's expected, even when you've witnessed it's glacial but indefatigable pace approaching, funny how the experience sucks your emotions and, for me, energy, dry.

I've been told a few times in my life that I'm a funny guy -- funny looking, funny something -- and yet it's funny how my sense of humor has completely evaporated in 2012.  Funny how I've had zero interest in participating (or even following along, lurking) in what have been some staple online venues I've been involved with for years that have previously brought me great relief from life's and death's more difficult realities. My friend's death, at the moment, just makes all the chatter, all the banter about good books and good movies or the great outdoors seem obscenely pointless to me, and that's not the reaction I was expecting, since, as I've said, his death was not sudden, but incrementally materializing from the seemingly safe distance of a year-and-a-half out.  There was time to prepare; time to say goodbye; time to cry; time to get used to the idea of him being gone.  But the finality of death ... that's an idea, initially, that was merely some nebulous, hazy knowledge of harmless hills on my mind's horizon I could barely see -- like Catalina Island twenty-six miles off the California coast at sunset when the desert off shores have scraped the sky clean.  And now?  Turns out those distant hills weren't so far away after all, metastasizing as they did so swiftly into terrible mountains that tower so completely in my gaze I can barely capture the faint rays of perspective and acceptance that have filtered down into this chasm of grief.

Writing helps.  Talking helps.  Reading even helps too.

Besides my ongoing Steve Erickson project I've just begun and described in some detail elsewhere, I've picked up William T. Vollmann's mammoth project, Imperial, again too.  I'd begun it back in 2009 when it was originally released, but got distracted with other online obligations that forced me to put the book down and take up other -- mostly lesser books -- to read.  Being that I'm no longer obligated to read anything other than what I want to read (absolutely absurd how I'd convinced myself I was obligated to read books I couldn't give a shit about because I was the "leader" of a reading group -- a story for another time perhaps) I've re-begun Imperial and every time I've picked it up over the past week I've gotten so sweetly and forgetfully lost in it, fully immersed, forgetting about loss and life, unconscious of my own existence, I expect I'll finish it this time around.

The irony is that Imperial is about almost nothing but loss.  Yet, reading about such literally poor people whose impoverishment creates such desperation in them they'll do anything to make three or four dollars an hour in the United States, risking exploitation and death in their mostly futile attempts to cross the border, just so they can send some pitiful pittance of their earnings home to their relatives in Mexico who have it even worse, is a perfect read for regaining some much needed perspective and equanimity in my estimation.  Vollmann has that uncanny knack as a writer in which he can make the most unsavory material palatable; even pleasurable to read.  And reading about the risks Vollmann took to get these sordid and sad stories onto the page is just jaw dropping in its extremity, both inspiring and mortifying at the same time.  I've no idea how I'll possibly review a book this size (1,305 pages) but I'll figure out a way, being its the least I can do since Vollmann risked so much in researching it and writing it for ten years, not to mention the unmentionable sacrifices made by those he chronicled and the debt owed them ....

Thank God for good books and good reading glasses and just the general ability to read I've long taken for granted.

Perspective.  I feel a little better already ....

1.12.2012

In Belated Defense of Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis



I disagree with Steve Almond's assessment of Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis published in the Boston Globe (Aug. 14, 2005), a novel Almond gleefully labelled as the worst novel he'd ever read.  I don't counter Almond's misinformed diatribe by saying Lunar Park is the best novel ever written, though I'd conclude it's a better book than the sole book of Steve Almond's I've read -- My Life in Heavy Metal -- a generally good book of short stories set in the late 1980s when hair metal briefly ruled radio airwaves -- but a book, nevertheless, I did not like as much as I liked Lunar Park.

1st U.S. ed., 2005
Lunar Park is, granted, a work of self-indulgent, probably overly self-involved metafiction, but not embarrassing self-aggrandizement as has been purported by Almond and his anti-Bret Easton Ellis lit-crit ilk out to tar and feather yet again contemporary literature's Lucifer (every time Ellis publishes a book his devout haters come out of the woodwork like roaches protesting the latest innovation made in Raid), a modern day Marquis de Sade of their own making.  As if Ellis could even be remotely confused with de Sade.  Now, compared with Jerzy Kosinki?  I'd be comfortable with that comparison.  Never mind that Marquis de Sade, besides being a superior intellect and talent (sorry, Bret), was an amoralist; while Bret always has been and probably always will be an earnest moralist disguising his moralism behind the depravity and dispassion of his characters and narrators who consistently wear masks of apathy (but Ellis actually cares), and Lunar Park, believe it or not, is as much if not more so a morality tale as his much-maligned anti-heroic classic, American Psycho.  So what if Ellis' protagonists are always sadistic, always twisted, always addicted, and certainly always narcissistic and misogynistic, and sometimes serial killers too?  We do live in a sick and twisted world don't we, especially here in the States, and Ellis skewers our sordid universe like few writers can, even if it means lambasting himself in the process; or, the confabulated mythology of himself, I should specify, that he and the media have made out of him.

The first thirty-plus pages of Lunar Park are a condensed and self-absorbed history of the roller coaster career of a fictional and yet true life character named Bret Easton Ellis, chronicling his debauched glory days clubbing with the Brat Pack on the Sunset Strip and in Manhattan high rises hot on the heels of his Less Than Zero rocket launch to literary stardom (1985-87); continuing through the infamy of his publisher backing out at the last minute on American Psycho, refusing to publish it, having caved to the pressure from mainly a vocal and politically powerful group of feminists who indicted the book with what amounted to a summary verdict of hate speech (1991); through the even more excessive excess of the Glamorama years (1998-99), when Ellis went a bit bonkers, even by his standards, a la Elvis-circa-1975, and got bloated both personally and professionally to the point of becoming nearly unrecognizable, a caricature of himself, until the safe landing and seeming equanimity he recovered -- finding peace, finally, with his life (declared he was gay) and career -- as exemplified by the uproarious self-deprecation contained in the first thirty-plus pages of Lunar Park (2005).

The bleak, nihilistic undercurrents of Ellis' earlier work do not completely dominate Lunar Park, replaced instead with surprising sensitivity, humor, and even horror that's more homage to terror masters of the trade than a genuine attempt to write something scary, though scare the hell out of me it did.  It's a strange and unexpected, sometimes nostalgic mix that includes even ... a plot -- another novelty for Ellis' novels! -- one that relies heavily on the reader's foreknowledge of American Psycho.  But even without having read American Psycho, Lunar Park still works.

In the novel's stirring climax, our protagonist, Bret Easton Ellis, undergoes and begins an emotional rebirth of such breadth and depth we almost forget that, yes indeed, Lunar Park is a novel written by that supposed creepy jerk, Bret Easton Ellis! I was stunned by that powerful and elegantly crafted ending, as Ellis makes an unforgettable deal with the memory of his deceased father, a man who'd all but perhaps justifiably disowned him.  The ending's so good it probably outshines the balance of the book, I'll admit, but I'll take it and not complain.  For Ellis so invoked such unexpected tenderness in that ending -- going against the grain, against type -- that it touched me to the point of tears.  To this day, seven years removed from first reading it, I'm still moved, and more than ready to regale anybody about it -- the book, Lunar Park, unequivocally not the worst novel ever written -- willing to listen.  

1.07.2012

Asking a Good Bookseller Friend of Mine, Becky, of The Book Frog, if She'd Ever Read any Steve Erickson

Have you ever read Steve Erickson?

What a mysterious and mystical marvel of a man -- or at least Steve Erickson, the writer -- he is. You should see what your bro, Tom Pynchon, wrote about his first novel, Days Between Stations, the one I'm deep into right now.  Pynchon has blurbed several of Erickson's novels -- and that's a feat unto itself.



Here's how Pynchon blurbed Erickson's first published novel:


"Steve Erickson has that rare and luminous gift for reporting back from the nocturnal side of reality, along with an engagingly romantic attitude and the fierce imaginative energy of a born storyteller.  It is good news when any of these qualities appear in a writer -- to find them all together in a first novelist is reason to break out the champagne and hors-d'oeuvres."
~ Thomas Pynchon (1985)


After having read so many interviews with Steve Erickson over the past month, and in talking to Alex Austin, who once worked with him at Westways (a surprisingly cool magazine to this day published by The Auto Club of Southern California) where they collaborated on punk rock concert reviews during that short-lived but gloriously iconic punk heyday along the Sunset Strip in the late '70s and early '80s, it's crystallized for me that Erickson is one of those singular visionary writers who have somehow flown under my reader's radar for far too long and who must be read now in published order from his first novel, Days Between Stations (1985), to his second, Rubicon Beach (1986), and on through the rest of his inimitable oeuvre -- Tours of the Black Clock (1989), Arc d'X (1993), Amnesiascope (1996), The Sea Came in at Midnight (1999, my favorite of the four novels of his I've read so far), Our Ecstatic Days (2005), Zeroville (2007), culminating in his latest, the soon-to-be published, These Dreams of You (Feb. 2012), to truly extract the most from his haunting writing, as his novels are so interconnected it's almost like he's been composing one long novel for the past three decades....  


Reading Steve Erickson from start to finish is a reading project I've just embarked upon for 2012, a year laden with potential apocalypse....  The impending apocalypse seems only apropos considering the apocalyptic content inherent in so many of Erickson's mesmerizing novels....


That Erickson writes almost exclusively about Los Angeles (not always, but a lot) -- and a decaying Los Angeles at that whose freeways are often empty, overrun as they are by encroaching sand dunes from the menacing Mojave Desert; an L.A. where strange springs gush out of manholes, creating impromptu lakes that appear overnight out of nowhere (read Our Ecstatic Days) and soon lap into the first floors and shaky lives of mystified apartment dwellers up and down Sunset Boulevard; an L.A. whose spooked and restless citizenry, moreover, experience constant blackouts, both of the space-time continuum variety and of the electric currency kind almost daily, and who in response to the internal and external native tumult, construct "moon bridges" out into these moonlit alchemical waters that have infiltrated their concrete lives, in fact flooded their lives to such interminable degrees that, in increments, as the intruding waters and even marauding sands erode entire neighborhoods and leave little behind in their inexorable wakes except for a palpable but unnameable aura of dread, the very essence of these residents morphs into century-old lives existing in the pre-Industrial age, people from some parallel past who've nevertheless lost their faith in the technology of a parallel future, and consequently seek altars or lovers to bow before, on their quests for answers and meaning in an incomprehensible parallel present laden with a subtle but unmistakable doom....


Paying homage to the moon on their homemade "moon bridges" helps these characters cope with the curious changes in their environments they can neither fathom or control; helps them, that is, better learn how to commune, maybe, with the forces greater than themselves; with the enveloping night that's falling all around them even in the muted light that remains, engaged in self-styled rituals that are neither madness or superstition for them, but some intrinsic spiritual exercise acknowledging, perhaps, the inconsequence of their humanity next to the always looming natural disasters and forces that are swiftly transforming their once ordinary and decadent Los Angeles realities, if not into nightmares per se, then into the sweetest of nightmares, addictive nightscapes they can't resist -- and that it's all mostly centered in the streets and clubs of Los Angeles just compels my interest even more, having grown up here in the L.A. environs and lived the dream-nightmare myself for so long....


What I've described doesn't even include the black cats that may have telekinetic powers in these, Steve Erickson's rabbit holes otherwise known as his novels (namely his first, Days Between Stations); these metaphysical cats that can communicate more than meows with certain select hyper-feline-sensitized individuals -- people maybe even you, the reader, know or vaguely recollect out of some can't-quite-place-the-memory or deja vu....


And then there's the clocks that have all stopped -- perhaps the most significant motif in understanding the artistic aims of Steve Erickson's novels -- so that time and space and life itself have all become interchangeable, interwoven, existing in the past, present and future simultaneously somehow ... in these magical and imaginative and evocatively stirring scenarios Erickson's character's lives unravel in that would have made a modern day Rod Serling proud, I'm convinced.  


What can I say more except that Steve Erickson is quickly becoming the most exciting, living writer I've yet encountered, since first bumping into the late great David Foster Wallace more than a decade ago ....