6.28.2015

Random Speculations Regarding "The Secret Street" of Steve Erickson's in Days Between Stations



In reading Daniel Lindsay's superb, unputdownable, master's thesis Years Between Stations: The Dream of America in Steve Erickson late into the night last night, I was reminded that Steve Erickson's childhood home in the San Fernando Valley was bulldozed to make way for the then new 118 Freeway being constructed at the time.

Later last night, very late -- which is the best time to read and reflect on Erickson's haunting novels, times when "crucifixes of shadow" might seep from the moon through the blinds into my room; musing upon brilliant, under appreciated books like Rubicon Beach or These Dreams of You, novels that will remain inside me forever, having gestated and developed over time in my memory's darkroom into their own independent uncanny entities -- I pulled my mylar-protected, first Poseidon Press printing, of Days Between Stations off the shelf and noticed something in it I hadn't noticed before, even though I had read Erickson's own accounts of his boyhood growing up in Los Angeles' sprawling suburbs in Leap Year: A Political Journey.

Early in Days Between Stations, Lauren and Jason (who's just back from Vietnam: "The smell of Asia was always in the air ... He had no real sense of relief, because he wasn't wise enough to understand he could die...") leave Kansas for California.  In San Francisco "they lived on a secret street, which was entered through a small hallway at the top of a series of steps that ran up a hill."  The secret street Lauren and Jason reside on hasn't been plotted on any street maps of the city that Lauren can find.  Strange.

Two years later, they move to L.A. and, coincidentally, land on a street they'll call home in the Hollywood Hills that is likewise entered through an even longer series of obscure steps.

"Three summers later," after Jason has left her for some distant station of his own, Lauren returns to San Francisco.  She spends three hours trying to find the street she once lived on.  But "the steps were nowhere to be seen".  She asks mail carriers, shop keepers in the area, policemen, about the steps and her street, but not one of them knows or recollects what the hell she's talking about.  It was as if the street and her home had never existed.

Likewise, Erickson's street and home from childhood no longer exist, having been razed for that damnable freeway.  I just wonder if that loss of his -- a part of his childhood gone forever, destroyed -- was transformed through his imagination into "the secret street" of Lauren's and Jason's in his first published novel, Days Between Stations?

I also wonder, in regards to those missing steps that led to the secret street in San Francisco, if Erickson, already an admitted admirer of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's magical realism, was also an admirer of Alejo Carpentier's The Lost Steps? Was Erickson perhaps paying Carpentier homage with his own lost steps in San Francisco?

Not many writers or critics have ever before attempted to map the imagination of Steve Erickson.  Read just one, any one, of Steve Erickson's fabulist, fantastic novels (and that's "fantastic" in every meaning and nuance of the word), and discover yourself how daring and dynamic, how complex and convoluted, is the cartography of Steve Erickson's inimitable imagination.  I applaud Daniel Lindsay and the astute insight of his master's thesis, Years Between Stations: The Dream of America in Steve Erickson, which sets in lucid relief the occasionally (albeit purposely) opaque yet always captivating -- even if it is sometimes cryptic, sometimes challenging -- unique artistry of an author, Steve Erickson, long overdue recognition; long overdue like Anna Kavan is long overdue; like William Gaddis and Philip K. Dick were once long overdue... or ... even overdue like Herman Melville once was, long before them.

6.21.2015

Telling Stories by One of Living Literature's Sharpest Storytellers, JOAN DIDION




'IN the fall of 1954, when I was nineteen and a junior at Berkeley, I was one of perhaps a dozen students admitted to the late Mark Schorer's English 106A ... English 106A was widely regarded in the fall of 1954 as a kind of sacramental experience, an initiation into the grave world of real writers ... I recall classroom discussions which ranged over meetings with Paul and Jane Bowles, incidents involving Djuna Barnes, years spent in Paris, in Beverly Hills, in the Yucatan, on the lower East Side of New York and on Repulse Bay and even on morphine ... I had never read Paul or Jane Bowles, let alone met them, and when, some fifteen years later at a friend's house in Santa Monica Canyon, I did meet Paul Bowles, I was immediately rendered as dumb and awestruck as I had been when I was nineteen and taking English 106A.... ' (boldness mine)

Telling Stories, 1978
So opens Joan Didion's essay "Telling Stories," the sole essay collected in this rarest of rare rarities of Joan Didion's, Telling Stories. I'd be "rendered dumb and awestruck", too, meeting Jane and Paul Bowles, but I'd probably be rendered dumber meeting Joan Didion. God knows I'm awestruck just reading her marvelous books. No secret I love Joan Didion. Unfortunately, so do a lot of people. Love Joan Didion. A lot. A lot of people love Joan Didion so much that this whole lotta love and adoration is unfortunate for a book collector such as yours truly and many others, no doubt, because it has made copies of all but signed and inscribed first printings by Joan Didion -- be it her classic essay collections (Slouching Toward Bethlehem, The White Album, After Henry, Political Fictions, Where I Was From), iconic memoirs (Salvador, Miami, The Year of Magical Thinking, Blue Nights), and novels (Run River, Play It As It Lays, A Book of Common Prayer, Democracy, The Last Thing He Wanted), alike -- ubiquitous in the eyes of book collectors on the hunt for something rare or obscure of hers.

David Foster Wallace had rarities like "The Planet Trillaphon as It Relates to the Bad Thing," his first story published in 1984 in Amherst College's student literary review, and "Untitled Chunk," published posthumously in the first, Jan. 2009, issue of The Chaffey Review; while Joseph McElroy has a prized rarity also -- 1980s Ship Rock: A Place -- a stand alone excerpt from "Women And Men: A Novel In Progress" published in a limited run of 226 copies by William B. Ewert, of which I own copy 95, but that's a previous story; and so likewise, Joan Didion, has Telling Stories, "Number 26 In The Series of Keepsakes Issued By The Friends Of The Bancroft Library For It's Members" at U.C. Berkeley.

But even those signed and inscribed first printings of Joan Didion's aforementioned most famous books from the Sixties and Seventies do not, as a rule, fetch high prices, barely breaking $1000 among book dealers, which is a low sum for a writer as revered as Didion, what with her impeccable reputation among both critics/peers and her faithful longtime readers. The great supply of Joan Didion's books, unfortunately, exceeds the great demand.  None of her books, in fact, are out of print. Even her first printings in mint condition, protected in brodart, are a dime a dozen, and rarely retail for more than twenty U.S. dollars.  Turns out even this scarce, limited edition "Keepsake" of hers, published in 1978, Telling Stories, holds relatively little monetary value among collectors, too, and yet for me, because I so love Joan Didion (I'd marry her in a second and make her my second wife -- my current wife would just have to deal with it -- if only Joan Didion would let me) is priceless.

Inside my copy of Telling Stories, that I was fortuitous enough to find a few years ago at The Bookman of Orange, was a folded insert advertisment (see below) with other regional California titles in the keepsake series published by Didion's alma mater, U.C. Berkeley. . . .

advertisement included in my copy, listing all the "Keepsakes"
U.C. Berkeley's Bancroft Library sold to its members

Telling Stories contains the only three short stories that Joan Didion has so far published in book form, and all were written in 1964; they are ...  1) "Coming Home" (originally published in 1967 in The Saturday Evening Post); ... 2) "The Welfare Island Ferry" (originally published in 1965 in Harper's Bazaar); ... and 3) "When Did Music Come This Way? Children Dear, Was It Yesterday?".

Story #3 above was rejected twenty-three times before the little known Denver Quarterly accepted it for publication in 1967 for the modest, under market value of fifty paltry dollars.  Fifty.  Absurd.  Five dollars per page.  Even then, nearly fifty years ago, fifty dollars was a lowball payment for an already established and renowned pro of Didion's rank.  Perhaps by the time of Telling Stories' publication, an only by then amusingly-peeved, somewhat sardonic, Joan Didion, still saw fit to take the time and limited space in U.C. Berkeley's keepsake for its members, Telling Stories, and noted for posterity's sake each and every publication that rejected -- and in some instances their rationale for rejecting -- her story with the admittedly long and arguably questionable title, "When Did Music Come This Way? Children Dear, Was It Yesterday?", that Didion even conceded...

'...works not at all as a story.  It is instead an extended notation for an unwritten novel, an exercise in the  truest sense.  It was in "When Did Music" that I taught myself -- or began to teach myself -- how to make narrative tension out of nothing more than the juxtaposition of past and present.  I should have known what I learned in this story before I ever wrote my first novel.  {Run River, 1964}  Had I never written this story I would have never written a second novel.  {Play It As It Lays, 1970}  As crude and imperfect as the story is, it seems to me by far the most interesting of the three.'

I think Didion suffers from that harsh, but common and understandable malady affecting all successful writers, who when given the opportunity to reflect upon their earliest works, are inevitably driven to its disparagement. For I found in "When Did Music Come This Way? Children Dear, Was It Yesterday?" a satisfying story indeed, one reminiscent of her clipped, understated, much-emulated style, contained within a, granted, less refined and effortless or natural sounding voice; voices as such inwardly shrieked with muzzled existential terror, out of the pretty mouths of those doomed starlet beauties I'll never forget, Maria Wyeth and Charlotte Douglas, of Play It As it Lays and A Book of Common Prayer infamy, respectively.  The muzzled, terror stricken voice here in "When Did Music" is an unnamed woman home for Christmas in Reno, Nevada, but instead of the hope and joy and festive season's greetings she should be experiencing, she'll get walloped by the usual, familial, petty hells of the holiday instead.  Listen to her voice and hear in it if it is not nearly as memorable as Didion's later, universal, hard luck soliloquies thought aloud by Maria or Charlotte:

"We all say the same things. Here are some facts. Ward died in 1949, in an aerial show in South Dakota. Aunt Inez did not marry again, and is now on a cruise of the Balkans; I received a card today. "Happy landings," it closed. Cary has married, twice, and I saw her for lunch during the World's Fair. She had five vodka martinis, one in lieu of dessert. I see my mother and father once a year, in July, when I take the children out. They seem older, and to prefer talking to the children than to me. Charlie called a few hours ago to say that if the Christmas tree was not down by the time he came home he would call the Fire Department, that it would ignite one night soon and burn us in our beds. I pointed out that in any case it was unlikely to catch him.  Those are only the facts."

The prestigious periodicals who, nevertheless, rejected "When Did Music Come This Way? Children Dear, Was It Yesterday?" are itemized by Didion in "Telling Stories" and, since Didion saw fit to name them by name, shouldn't I do so as well?  If anything, a rejection list like the following afforded Joan Didion offers hope to aspiring writers everywhere, demonstrating as it does that every would-be writer -- in fact, every published writer period, too, even one of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Century's most accomplished writers, Joan Didion -- faced rejection.

Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker, Ladies' Home Journal (twice rejected), McCall's, Redbook, Atlantic Monthly, Cosmopolitan (rejected twice due to a change in its editorial staff), Vogue, Mademoiselle, The Reporter, Harper's, Hudson Review, Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly, Paris Review, Yale Review, and Sewanee Review, all rejected Joan Didion. Those, too, are only the facts.

And then there was Good Housekeeping's rejection note -- and it's a good note to end on -- because it's by far the funniest rejection of all the rejections; funny, that is, for Didion aficionados well versed in her bereaved poetic prose and melancholic rumination; well versed, in other words, in her overall dark and invariably despairing oeuvre:

"Marvelously written, very real, and so utterly depressing that I'm going to sit under a cloud of angst and gloom all afternoon...I'm sorry we are seldom inclined to give our readers this bad a time."

6.14.2015

The Documents of Vatican II edited by Walter M. Abbott, S.J.



I am not a Catholic.  Neither am I an Atheist.  Call me, instead, an Absurdeist.  Nevertheless, I recommend (and say it with conviction freed of any and all irony -- yeah right) that every believer and unbeliever alike should read or at least skim as swiftly as humanly possible the The Documents of Vatican II.   So what if its consistent lapses into tiresome opacity makes reading it late at night, as I have, a more effective antidote to insomnia than Ambien or a double gin and tonic -- for what compendium or even lesser pamphlet attached with a rubber band to the metallic grate of my front screen door, for that matter, of religious dogma and/or philosophy isn't tiresome or opaque? Ever read the Book of Deuteronomy or that wondrously unimaginative tome of fantasy called The Book of Mormon? Even one I like such as What the Buddha Taught may make me yawn if I'm on the wrong page.  Likewise Ludwig Wittgenstein.  Even the most devout adherents of so-called sacred texts would have to admit they'd be breaking -- while if not, technically speaking, the letter of the law, then the spirit -- of the Ninth Commandment given to Moses, if they said their particular sacred text never put them into a thankfully brief comatose state once in a while, right? Tell me I'm wrong, if you dare.

My major complaint with The Documents of Vatican II is that, while addressing how Catholics (the priesthood in particular) are to behave specifically in a variety of religious and secular situations, it never once addresses the opposite: how the priesthood is not to act in those specific situations, secular or religious.  There’s nary a mention I could find of official disciplinary protocol should a member of the priesthood conduct themselves in a manner unbecoming their higher calling, including as it pertains to what’s appropriate and inappropriate interaction with younger generations of parishioners entrusted to their spiritual care.  But neither do The Documents of Vatican II anywhere in its pages I could find promote the kind of behavior that makes the spate of controversial scandals and cover-ups involving "pastoral indiscretions” with childhood laity, ongoing here in the States for at least the past two decades, ubiquitous and no longer shocking. The Documents of Vatican II, in fact, remain surprisingly silent on many contemporary and relevant topics confronting The Church today, unless one deems, say, Nostra Aetate (The Church's official stance toward non-Christians) or Gravissimum Educationis (its position on Christian education) topical or relevant.  But the same criticism, of course, could be levied at the Bible.

Hopefully, in the future, the Vatican will update its ecumenical council's documents to include disciplinary protocol for the priesthood, and maybe include as well some sections on “transparency” and “accountability” (wish I knew the important Latin spellings for the words; any Jesuit monks out there know them?) for those employed by the Church, so that the Church’s credibility and mission in the world as an instrument for God’s glorification and salvation for every man, woman, and child She's been allegedly divinely appointed to help save and to serve could be greeted hereafter by the world's applause, rather than its well deserved, abundant disdain.