The Pok-a-Dot and other attractions of Batavia, NY

We’ve fallen into the habit of spending the night in Batavia on our drives East.  It mostly just happens to fall at a good spot for us to break for the night, but we also kind of like it.

We have a big soft spot for a popular Greek diner-type 24-hour restaurant called Sport of Kings (named for the nearby seedy-looking racetrack) where you can get a really good chicken Souvlaki plenty big enough for two to share for $10.99.  Tip: get it with the sweet potatoes.  Sport of Kings is a great place to settle into for some comfort food (fantastic rice pudding, too) after driving for 9 1/2 hours (no beer, though, unfortunately).

This visit, though, we discovered what is now my favorite establishment in Batavia, the Pok-a-Dot diner, which just celebrated its 60th anniversary.

photoAmazing place, no?  [What is a Beef on Weck, you ask?  Well, I still have never eaten one, but it is a central element of the distinctive Western New York state regional cuisine, a kind of sliced roast beef sandwich on a kosher-salt-topped roll, dipped in “au jus.”  Here’s a fuller explanation.]

Here’s the inside.

photo copy 2As someone commented in a posting, it feels a bit like a slightly amplified food truck.  One pregnant woman complained/ commented that she had trouble fitting into the bathroom, and it’s true that it’s quite a squeeze– feels like you’re on a boat, with a wooden sliding door!

The Pok-a-Dot was apparently a favorite of Batavia’s most famous native son author, John Gardner– best known for his Beowulf retelling Grendel, and nowhere near as prominent now, I don’t think, as he was in his heyday in the 60s and 70s… but perhaps ripe for a revival, I don’t know.  The John Gardner society holds their annual readings at the Pok-a-Dot because it’s mentioned in his 1972 novel set in a fantastical Batavia, the Sunlight Dialogues, which (wiki) “follows Batavia police chief Fred Clumly in his pursuit of a magician known as the Sunlight Man, a champion of existential freedom and pre-biblical Babylonian philosophy. As Clumly believes in absolute law, order, justice and a Judeo-Christian world view, the two butt their ideological heads in a number of dialogues, all recorded on audiocassette by Clumly.”

Here’s a little plaque the John Gardner society had erected outside the Pok-a-Dot:

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Breakfast was pretty great. We ordered as much as we thought we could possibly eat, for four, with coffees, etc, and the total was something like $19.60.  Sarah and I each had the eggs-with-peppers– you can choose Hot or Sweet or Mixed, and I got the latter.  Delicious, filled with tomatoes too, and accompanied by a buttery hard roll toasted on the grill.  I was kind of hoping I’d get a “weck” (see above) but it did not have the salt so was I guess simply a hard roll.

Before concluding my guide to Batavia, I will mention the place we’ve stayed for our last couple visits, the Sunset Motel.  I kind of like this place though can’t really give it an all-out recommendation.  It is a bit shabby and really could use some fixing up.  It is clean, however, and the place has some charms.  It has a large field in back which is great for taking the dog and kids on a little run, and features some spooky cow and deer figurines:

photo copy 4And, remarkably, the interior back wall of the motel features a worn/fading mural featuring an accurate rendering of the motel’s proprietor holding a glass of wine (very debonair!) and accompanied by a Shih-Tzu (he currently has two of these) and two Dobermans.

photo copy 3As I said, this place could definitely use a renovation– for example, it was rather difficult to get our motel room door shut — you had to put a shoulder to it.  But I give it a lot of credit for the wacky mural and the uncanny deer.

James Salter’s *Light Years*

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The recent Nick Paumgarten profile of James Salter in The New Yorker made me want to read his 1975 novel Light Years, which I’ve now done.  It’s a really beautiful novel that sometimes reads a bit like To the Lighthouse if it had been written by the Hemingway of A Moveable Feast… with a lot of explicit post-1960s sex. And a touch of, I don’t know, Joan Didion or maybe better Renata Adler. It’s a portrait of a happy marriage and then its dissolution. For the first half of the novel, I once in a while felt just a touch irritated by, or at least slightly resistant to, the novel’s luxuriating in all the sensuous, tactile, lavish detail of the Berlands’ envy-producing life in a farmhouse outside NYC. All the fabulous, drawn-out meals sometimes make you wonder, do these people ever just throw together a sandwich? And a few of the sex scenes made me giggle -e.g. when Nedra is described as moving “like some marvelous beast.” But when the marriage disintegrates and the house is eventually sold, that luxuriating feels, in retrospect, poignant and sad, and idealized in hindsight:

The feast was ended. Like the story he had read to them so many times, of the poor couple who were given three wishes and wasted them, he had not wanted enough. He saw that clearly. When all was said, he had wanted one thing, it was far too small: he had wanted to give them the happiest of homes.

He has a very distinctive, crystalline prose…  Gorgeous sentences, like a prose poem. I can see why (as the profile explains) so many contemporary novelists admire him.

Oh, this is too cool!

As part of James Salter month at the Paris Review, the journal’s blog has posted some of Salter’s notes and scribblings, documenting a little bit of his process coming up with the title for his 1975 novel Light Years: “At every magazine or publishing house, there’s always an editor or two with a knack for titles. But even so, rarely does one come in a flash of divine inspiration. There are iterations and themes and the same words written over and over. Here is a glimpse of what James Salter’s process was like with his 1975 novel Light Years…. Salter seems so close at points, circling back to light and years, sometimes on the same page but not always the same line, ranking his favorites and weighing the opinions of others.”

James-Salter-Light-Years-titles

Tortoise Years would have been kind of hilarious– but fitting (the novel contains a very poignant and symbolically resonant tortoise).

Elena Ferrante and the Novel of Female Rage

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I learned about Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, four of whose books are out in English translation on Europa Editions, from James Wood’s good piece on her work in the January 21, 2013 New Yorker.  That Wood is a fan makes me pretty sure that Ferrante’s work influenced his wife Claire Messud’s new novel The Woman Upstairs; I haven’t read that yet, but I’ve heard several interviews with Messud in which she explains her desire to write a novel in a voice of female rage, of a kind familiar from ranting-narrator books like Notes from Underground, but much less familiar in a woman’s voice.

Maybe or maybe not, but Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment is definitely a novel of female rage — and of female abjection, humiliation, disgust.  Wood writes that “the literary excitement of The Days of Abandonment lies in the picture it gives of a mind in emergency, at the very limits of coherence and decency, a mind that has become a battlefield between reason and insanity, survival and explosion.” The plot is simple: the narrator Olga, a 38 year-old woman, a mother of two young kids who had published one book in her 20s, but in recent years has more or less abandoned her vocation as a writer (this also reminiscent of the Messud novel’s themes), is suddenly left by her husband Mario with no real explanation.  Mario takes up with the 20 year-old daughter of a former close friend, and Olga is left alone with the kids and an unhappy German Shepherd, struggling to keep the household and her mental state in any kind of working order.

Most of the novel takes place in and around Olga’s increasingly claustrophobic apartment; the novel sometimes reminded of Roman Polanski’s great, disturbing psychological horror movie The Tenant. More to prove that she can than out of any real desire, Olga has a one-night stand with a kind but seedy downstairs classical musician, one of the greatest Really Bad Sex scenes I can recall. It’s very graphic, but what’s shockingly memorable are the embarrassing, intimate details of what goes down between them.  Bodily fluids of various kinds, not just sexual but also vomit and human and dog blood, spill out throughout the book, always emphasizing Olga’s sense of dismay and lack of control over the boundaries between herself and others, and her own inside and outside.

Women don’t often get to rant in novels, Messud has been commenting — and/but The Days of Abandonment is one long, sometimes unhinged, mesmerizing rant.  “Obscenity came to my lips naturally… As soon as I opened my mouth I felt the wish to mock, smear, defile Mario and his slut.”  She’s haunted by a childhood memory, recurring throughout the narrative, of a neighbor her mother had called the “poverella,” that “poor woman,” who was left by her husband and descended into despair, eventually drowning herself.

I haven’t really conveyed the ways the novel is, implausibly, also somewhat hilarious at times. Hard to take at moments — the plot involving the German Shepherd Otto is upsetting, for example — but a great read.  And not as much of a downer in the end as you fear.

I should also mention that Ferrante is an author of Thomas Pynchon-like mystery; her name is a pseudonym, and virtually nothing is known about her personally. Rumors apparently swirl about who she may really be. Must be hard these days to maintain that kind of secrecy.  Here’s a brief interview with her (conducted via email). And her 2008 NYT Op-Ed about the “stinking, polluted filth” of her hometown of Naples.

I want to read her most recent, My Brilliant Friend, apparently the first book in a trilogy.

Living, Loving, Partygoing with the Future Bible Heroes and Henry Green

It appears that the new Future Bible Heroes single, “Living, Loving, Partygoing,” is a tribute to the English modernist novelist Henry Green. And more specifically, to the Penguin edition that collects all three of those novels.  (Penguin is onto this.)

I’m not all that surprised that Stephin Merritt would be a Henry Green fan.  Perhaps his recent hearing problems/ tinnitus led him to the “odd, haunted, ambiguous” Green, who is famous for his Altman-esque overlapping conversations.  From a Paris Review interview with Terry Southern, “The Art of Fiction” #22, from 1958:

TERRY SOUTHERN: I’d like to ask you some questions now about the work itself. You’ve described your novels as “nonrepresentational.” I wonder if you’d mind defining that term?

GREEN: “Nonrepresentational” was meant to represent a picture which was not a photograph, nor a painting on a photograph, nor, in dialogue, a tape recording. For instance, the very deaf, as I am, hear the most astounding things all round them which have not in fact been said. This enlivens my replies until, through mishearing, a new level of communication is reached. My characters misunderstand each other more than people do in real life, yet they do so less than I. Thus, when writing, I “represent” very closely what I see (and I’m not seeing so well now) and what I hear (which is little) but I say it is “nonrepresentational” because it is not necessarily what others see and hear.

Another good moment from this interview occurs when Southern asks how Green came to the plot/story for Loving:

I got the idea of Loving from a manservant in the Fire Service during the war. He was serving with me in the ranks, and he told me he had once asked the elderly butler who was over him what the old boy most liked in the world. The reply was: “Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, listening to the church bells, eating buttered toast with cunty fingers.” I saw the book in a flash.

I’ve kind of been waiting for the ripples from Downton Abbey-mania to reach Green. Henry Green Revival!

Merritt’s lyrics seem less faithful to than perhaps generally inspired by the mood of Green’s novels, e.g.: “At Mink Stole’s birthday/ in gay Provincetown/ I came to DJ/ and left with the clown.”

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Jamie Quatro & George Meredith: Hiding the Skeleton

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Jamie Quatro’s I Want to Show You More seems like the 2013 version of Ben Lerner’s hilarious & super-smart 2011 Leaving the Atocha Stationa first-book fiction breakout on a small press (Lerner’s was published by the really indie Coffee House press; Quarto’s is on Grove, so maybe not exactly the same thing) that gets rave reviews from James Wood in the New Yorker, the NY Times, and cascading ripples of underdog-new-author-loving accolades from that point on.

Quatro’s stories are really good.  They’re all set in the town of Lookout Mountain on the Georgia-Tennessee border, which on first blush sounds like a too-picturesque invented setting but turns out to be where Quatro actually lives.  (Her husband seems to be a business professor at the (Presbyterian) Covenant College in Lookout Mt.)

The one that seems to have received the most attention is “Decomposition: A Primer for Promiscuous Housewives.” This is a disconcertingly realist-allegorical account of a married woman’s adultery in which, following her confession to her husband and breaking off of the affair, her lover’s slowly decaying corpse manifests in the marital bed.  She zips up the body in a sleeping bag and hides it in an old playpen in the basement, disguised under piles of junk.  Finally she brings her husband down to look at the hidden corpse, which starts to scream at her and call her a whore.

My theory is that Quatro (who started but did not finish the PhD program in English at Princeton, specializing in British Romantic poetry) is drawing on George Meredith’s great 1862 sonnet sequence “Modern Love,” especially its famous section 2 in which the miserable, adulterous couple play “hiding the skeleton” in their performance of a happy marriage:

AT dinner she is hostess, I am host.

Went the feast ever cheerfuller? She keeps

The topic over intellectual deeps

In buoyancy afloat. They see no ghost.

With sparkling surface-eyes we ply the ball:

It is in truth a most contagious game;

HIDING THE SKELETON shall be its name.

Such play as this the devils might appall!

But here ’s the greater wonder; in that we,

Enamor’d of our acting and our wits,

Admire each other like true hypocrites.

Warm-lighted glances, Love’s Ephemeræ,

Shoot gayly o’er the dishes and the wine.

We waken envy of our happy lot.

Fast, sweet, and golden, shows our marriage-knot.

Dear guests, you now have seen Love’s corpse-light shine!

There’s a new Yale UP edition of the poem (and a bunch of other Meredith poetry) reviewed (somewhat nastily to its editors) by Helen Vendler in a recent New Republic.

I Want to Show You More has various enjoyable & surprising things about it, including that it is (a) immersed in matters of religion; not only are many of its characters church-goers but several stories (like “the Anointing” and “Demolition”) are centrally about faith in different ways and (b) it’s unusually filthy/pervy by prestigious-short-story standards. In “Decomposition,” for example, one manifestation of the adulterous woman’s ill ease (with her lover in the basement) is that she “grow[s] desperate, watch[es] Asian breast massage how-to videos on YouTube with links to girl-on-girl porn.”  I wonder what the folks at Covenant College think of all this.

*Any relation to Suzi Quatro a.k.a. “Pinky” Tuscadero on Happy Days?  Weirdly conceivable but probably too good to be true.

Our love is alive, and so we begin

Foolishly laying our hearts on the table

Stumblin’ in

Our love is a flame, burning within

Now and then firelight will catch us

Stumblin’ in

Stumblin’ in

Stumblin’ in

I actually always thought it was “our love is a lie”… which I thought was kind of hard-hitting for that kind of song.

*Amour* and *I Married You for Happiness*

Amour

Coincidentally (I think) I happened to be reading Lily Tuck’s novel I Married You For Happiness when I saw Michael Haneke’s Amour at the IU Cinema– both of which are about an elderly, long-married spouse’s response to the death of his/her partner.  You probably know about Amour.  The donnée of Tuck’s novel is a bit different; at its onset, the narrator Nina is at the bedside of her husband, who after going upstairs to take a quick nap, has died suddenly; the novel plays out in that night, as she stays by his corpse, thinking back over memories from their marriage.  As its title suggests, I Married You For Happiness is less about the death than about the marriage, and I found it to be a moving and engaging portrait of a not-untroubled long-term relationship as it spools out over decades.  They meet at a cafe in Paris where she is reading an avant-garde French novel by Natalie Saurraute (which hints at Tuck’s aesthetic program). Theirs is a C.P. Snow two-cultures kind of marriage, she a painter, he a mathematician, and one of its concerns is the way two people with different ways of thinking, kinds of mind, and perspectives can form a life together.  In this it reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s portrait of a somewhat incompatible yin/yang marriage in the Ramsays:

Whenever she "thought of his work" she always saw clearly before 
her a large kitchen table. It was Andrew's doing. She asked him 
what his father's books were about. "Subject and object and the 
nature of reality," Andrew had said. And when she said Heavens, 
she had no notion what that meant. "Think of a kitchen table then," 
he told her, "when you're not there."

So now she always saw, when she thought of Mr. Ramsay's work, 
a scrubbed kitchen table.

Nina is a bit Mrs Ramsay-like in her bemused attitude to her abstractly-thinking husband’s worldview.  Although in other ways she, as an artist, more resembles Mrs. Ramsay’s protege Lily, the painter (Lily Tuck/ Lily Briscoe?).

I am a longtime Haneke fan (I’ve seen most of his films, I think — my favorite is probably Caché; I can never bring myself to watch either version of Funny Games), and I found Amour brilliant and/but hard to watch in some respects.  I read one review that asserted that it is “not a depressing movie” and in fact that it would be a good choice for a couple to go see on Valentine’s Day.  It’s true that it’s a notably realist and unsentimental depiction of long-term commitment– one that considers what the phrase “’till death do us part” might really mean in practice.  Not sure I’d really recommend it for date night, though.  One friend saw it at a different showing at the IU Cinema during which she reports various audience members were crying, one woman doing so throughout the entire film and, at one climactic moment (you can probably guess which if you’ve seen it), shouting out loudly “no!”  My friend says she actually kind of wished she’d seen it on DVD at home, as the emotion in the audience was a bit overpowering.

George Saunders’ & Sam Lipsyte’s Disrespected Worlds of Fantasy

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My spring break pleasure reading, partly on a round-trip plane ride, consisted of two new collections of stories by authors I’ve read for a while, George Saunders’ Tenth of December and Sam Lipsyte’s The Fun Parts. It was interesting to read them in succession; you could construct a Venn Diagram in which they both overlap with parts of Donald Barthelme, Mark Leyner (although I admit I only thought of him because I just read Lipsyte’s admiring interview with him in the new Paris Review), Louis C.K. and/or other standup comics, Saunders’ one-time Syracuse colleague David Foster Wallace and maybe Kurt Vonnegut. What may be most distinctive about them, at least considered together, is the fundamental role of humor in their fiction — they almost continually crack jokes even in pretty serious and/or grim narratives, in a way that feels kind of post-David Letterman and contemporary to me.

It’s a slightly unfair comparison to Lipsyte because Tenth of December is probably the best book of an artist for whom the short story is his central and basically only art form, whereas Lipsyte’s The Fun Parts is more of an occasional collection and doesn’t, IMO, show him at his strongest compared to, for example, his last full-length novel The Ask which I believe I wrote about here a few years ago… Yes, I began that posting by observing that it will “probably long remain the funniest and best novel filed under this Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data: 1.  College administrators– Fiction.  2.  College benefactors — Fiction.  3.  Education fund raising — Fiction.”

Saunders’ book is fantastic. I guess my favorite is the amazing “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” which he discusses on the New Yorker fiction blog here. Saunders in his winningly unpretentious way comments that ‘If the only thing the story did was say, ‘Hey, it’s really wrong to hang up living women in your backyards, you capitalist-pig oppressors,’ that wasn’t going to be enough. We kind of know that already. It had to be about that plus something else.” This story would work really well on a syllabus in a course focused on depictions of immigrant labor or related topics.

Lipsyte is a master of that contemporary mode of cringing-embarrassment-and-shame, with a focus on the grotesque and abject body, that’s most familiar from t.v. shows like Louie C.K., Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Girls. And Maria Bamford’s stand-up comedy and her show. He’s hilarious and brilliant, but I found the stories a bit brutal and cudgeling when read all in a row.  They contain some pretty disgusting and/or emotionally lacerating moments, e.g. the story with the dad who taunts his son to goad him to take a swing at him: “Don’t be such a damn pansy!  I’m leaving your dying hag of a mother!” Maybe my favorite was the one about early-teenage Dungeons & Dragons players, which stood out for me as having more of a Saunders-like sympathy and emotional depth than some of the others.

That story’s D&D theme also reminded me of the final story in Saunders’s collection, “Tenth of December” itself, which starts in the consciousness of an odd kid who seems to have developed his own cosmology involving creatures called Nethers that vaguely bring to mind some of the creatures in A Wrinkle in Time:

They were Netherworlders.  Or Nethers.  They had a strange bond with him.  Sometimes for whole days he would just nurse their wounds.  Occasionally, for a joke, he would shoot one in the butt as it fled.  Who henceforth would limp for the rest of its days. Which could be as long as an additional nine million years.

That’s a characteristic Saunders thought, that this weird kid spends days, in his fantasy life, nursing the wounds of aggressive invented creatures whom he also humiliatingly injures for laughs, and with whom he has a “strange bond.”

It makes sense that both Saunders and Lipsyte would be interested in eccentric, childish, disrespected realms of fantasy and role-playing. Both authors return repeatedly to self-contained invented worlds and subcultures, lacking good aesthetics or high-cultural credibility, that provide opportunities for grandiose self-dramatizing on the part of losers and marginal types of all kinds. Amusement and theme parks seem often to serve this role for Saunders. This preoccupation seems fitting for an era in which literary fiction has vastly less cultural influence than, say, console or smartphone video games. There’s a resigned albeit slightly embarrassed sense on the part of both authors that they are working in a genre that has lost status in a major way and that cannot really even compete with the cheesiest of non-literate games. And of course part of their success is that they fully recognize this in the way a lot of authors trying to plug away at realist fiction do not.  (Maybe Jennifer Egan’s work has some of this too.)

I point this out as a former somewhat-dedicated D&D player circa 6th-7th grade…

D.T. Max’s Life of David Foster Wallace

I just finished the recent biography of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story (come to think of it, I don’t know where that title comes from — can’t remember it appearing in any of Wallace’s work or in any other context).  It’s very good: there’s a blurb on the back by Dave Eggers that says “we should be grateful that this story was told by someone as talented and responsible as D.T. Max” and that seems true; it’s an inherently sensationalistic tale in a lot of ways and it would have been very easy for a biographer to tip it in a more voyeuristic direction.

Speaking of which, I have to cite the craziest moment in the book, about DFW’s tumultuous relationship with the married Mary Karr.  (I think I remember seeing some coverage of this when the book came out earlier this year.)  It’s like something out of Elmore Leonard.

One day in February [1992], he thought briefly of committing murder for her.  He called an ex-con he knew through his recovery program and tried to buy a gun.  He had decided he would wait no longer for Karr to leave her husband; he planned to shoot him instead when he came into Cambridge to pick up the family dog.  The ex-con called Larson, the head of Granada House, who told Karr.  Wallace himself never showed up for the handover and this ended what he would call in a letter of apology “one of the scariest days of my life.”  He wrote Larson in explanation, “I now know what obsession can make people capable of” — then added in longhand after — “at least of wanting to do.”  To Karr at the time he insisted that the whole episode was an invention of the ex-con and she believed him.

He was in and out of psychiatric hospitals for chronic depression, and he often behaved pretty oddly, but there’s nothing else quite like this. He got a tattoo of “Mary” on his arm– which is a pretty intense thing to do in re: a married lover (although maybe they were briefly an acknowledged couple at this point, I forget).  Later when he got married, he “had a strikeout drawn through the fading word ‘Mary’ on his tattoo and placed and asterisk under the heart symbol; further down he added another asterisk and ‘Karen,’ turning his arm into a living footnote.”  Too perfect!

One part I found especially sad has to do with DFW’s reaction to winning a MacArthur “genius” award.

…He was ‘paralyzed’ by fear of failure. He worried that whatever ‘magic’ or ‘genius’ people said they’d seen in his last two books would not be in evidence.  He would, he worried, be ‘obliterated or something (I say ‘obliterated’ because the fear most closely resembles some kind of fear of death or annihilation, the kind of fear that strikes one on the High Dive or if one has to walk a high tightrope or something).’  He was now frozen by his own need to be the person others saw him as.  They could let go of it more easily than he could.  And since the success of Infinite Jest the problem had gotten worse, so that he feared the ‘slightest mistake or miscue’ would knock the statue down.  The prospect terrified him…

I found fascinating the ways DFW’s chronic depression, addiction, and history of frequent hospitalization (for both) functioned as a kind of purloined-letter-style concealed absence in his work and biography.  In retrospect, it seems amazing that everyone didn’t catch on about this, but Wallace and his editors and friends provided various kinds of cover stories.  And perhaps he seemed so erudite & brilliant that people couldn’t quite imagine that he had in fact spent long stretches in the kinds of no-frills addiction treatment centers he describes in Infinite Jest.  So for example, after the publication of that novel, Frank Bruni wrote about him for the New York Times Magazine and the journalist “went along to a dinner at the home of a couple named Erin and Doug Poag.  They ate Kentucky Fried Chicken and heroes on trays and watched The X-Files… Wallace did not mention that his connection to the Poags was from his recovery circle — he claimed to have met them at a ‘Mennonite church.’  And, understandably, without that information, Bruni was left with the impression that Wallace’s fondness for ordinary Midwestern people might be a put-on.”

Max can be critical of DFW, as for example in his comment about Wallace’s famous 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech: “Over the past 25 years his mental life had run a huge circuit through the most astonishing complexities to arrive at what many six-year-olds and nearly all churchgoers already understood.”  Although actually Max evinces a lot of sympathy for DFW’s personal journey through heights of high-philosophical braininess, post-modernist fictional experimentation, sexual promiscuity (“Other than the classroom, his favored venue for meeting women was St Matt’s, the church in whose rectory his recovery group met”), and then eventually to a kind of serious earnestness and monogamy.  (Btw Jonathan Franzen was a big influence on him in this regard — Franzen was his most important long-term peer/ friend/ competitor/ correspondent).

Of course, the writing never stopped being extremely thorny, dense, and weird.

I now am finally going to read The Pale King!

p.s.  I mentioned the DFW story “The Depressed Person” here a year or two ago.  My take on it at that point was that the irony in retrospect — in relation to how angry the story made some readers for its seemingly cruel depiction of a depressed person — was that that person obviously was Wallace.  Max asserts that it’s in fact a depiction of Elizabeth Wurtzel, whom he was pissed off at for sexually rejecting him.  I actually don’t quite buy this…

Joyce Carol Oates’ *Blonde*

I emerged blinking and slightly dazed the other day from Joyce Carol Oates’ big novel based on Marilyn Monroe’s life, Blonde.   I got the idea to read it from the recent interview with Oates in the Times Book Review in which she comments,

I can say that the novel that exhausted me the most, wrung my emotions the most and left me determined never again to write a thousand-page novel with a sympathetic protagonist who must die on the last page is “Blonde,” imagined as a tragic-epic of the life of Norma Jeane Baker/“Marilyn Monroe.”

My edition was 738 pages, but it actually went pretty quickly for such a doorstop.  I’ve never been all that fascinated by Monroe, and didn’t know the details of her biography all that well beyond the broad strokes; not sure if that was an advantage or the opposite for reading this.  I’ve also only seen a few of her best-known movies e.g. (of course) Some Like it Hot, and the novel makes you see that movie a bit differently.  I did constantly find myself wondering to what degree various details were accurate, based on reality, or simply made up.  For example, for a long stretch in the novel “Monroe” maintains a kind of menage a trois relationship with the embittered sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson, which is treated as a hugely important relationship for her, but as far as I can tell this is all in the category of unverified rumor.  I would have liked an annotated version of this novel with footnotes explaining what Oates is doing with the known facts and how she’s entering into Marilynology and engaging with the mythologies.  (Oates depiction of Marilyn’s death is pretty bold, for example, and could fall into the category of conspiracy theory.)

Marilyn with Arthur Miller, 1960 © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

The novel sometimes brings to mind Nathaniel West and Bruce Wagner in its mostly nightmarish depiction of Hollywood and of Marilyn/Norma Jeane’s exploitation.  Even to call her Marilyn can feel like participation in that exploitation — she never liked the name and, in the novel, never really accepts it as her own.  The original reviewer in the Times back in 2000, Laura Miller, claimed that “‘Blonde,” although sometimes sloppy and sentimental, is perhaps the most ferocious fictional treatise ever written on the uninhabitable grotesqueness of femininity.”  That’s a pretty strong claim, but I don’t think it’s absolutely over-the-top. Oates’ Norma/Marilyn is a bottomlessly needy creature shaped and deformed by her desirability.  “Men’s eyes.  The hawk plunging its beak into the songbird’s breast.”  She is transformed and vivified and also destroyed by the camera.  Oates depicts her as seemingly in a “panic-fugue state” half the time, fundamentally bewildered by her own effects on men and viewers.  Watching herself in The Seven Year Itch: “maybe she’d been exhausted by melancholy, a combination of Nembutal and champagne and the strain of the divorce, and she’d seen the giant Technicolor screen in a haze as if underwater hearing laughter around her buzzing in her ears and she’d had to fight sleep in her gorgeous stitched-in body in a strapless evening gown so tight in the bust she could barely breathe, her brain deprived of oxygen, and her eyes glazing over inside the ceramic Marilyn mask her makeup man Whitey had sculpted over her sick sallow skin and bruised soul.”  I guess that sentence also typifies the rather hysterical pitch of the incantatory prose, which is often “too much” for sure, but generally in ways that fit the subject.

Another somewhat exemplary passage (not that the entire book is so horrific) that reminds me of Ellroy’s My Dark Places: “These killings in Los Angeles County, there’d been another one last month, a ‘red-haired model’ the papers described her, only seventeen years old.  Sometimes the murderer buried the girl in a ‘shallow grave’ and rain washed the sandy soil away to expose the body, or what remained of the body.  But no harm had ever come to Norma Jeane.  Each of the eight or nine or ten raped-and-mutilated girls was known to her, or might have been known to her, sister starlets at the Studio… yet were not ever her.  What did that mean?  That she was destined for a longer life?  A life beyond the age of thirty and a life beyond Marilyn?”

The novel does also, however, tap into Monroe’s occasional joy in performance and what Oates presents as the genius of that performance.  You feel that Oates loves her hapless and very sad protagonist– who could also be very funny, loving and insightful.  (Well, “hapless” may not be the word if it means luckless; Norma Jeane had the kind of incredibly good luck that turns out to be bad luck, I suppose.)  You really find yourself rooting for Norma Jeane, this girl from the L.A. orphanage with a completely crazy and abusive mother, to make it, to get to a place where she could achieve some sense of self-control and autonomy.  (Needless to say she does not quite get there.)

Marilyn reading Ulysses, 1955, © Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos

Don Winslow’s *Savages*: A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of O.

Is there a verb for going back to read the book that inspired a new movie?  Retroreading or some such?  I have not seen Oliver Stone’s adaptation of Don Winslow’s novel Savages but was inspired by the coverage of the movie (and reviews of the novel’s sequel) to check it out.

I get why it was popular/successful… it has a Quentin Tarantino/ Elmore Leonard / James Ellroy hipness, speed, sex, violence and general nastiness that makes for a quick and in some ways fun read.  I didn’t love it, though.

One problem: I found the basic premise of much of the story to be implausibly silly.  (Spoilers to follow, but I won’t give away the actual ending.) The high-end Berkeley Laguna Beach [Ben’s parents are Berkeley liberals and he went to UC Berkeley] pot dealers Chon and Ben cross a brutal Mexican drug cartel who respond by kidnapping their friend/ shared girlfriend/ girl-toy Ophelia a.k.a. “O” and threatening to behead her if Chon and Ben fail to comply with every demand.  Our Laguna stoner young men in turn start putting on masks and robbing the drug cartel… who for some inexplicable reason can’t seem to decide if this sudden string of bold robberies, performed by two tall white men in masks, might just possibly be connected to Chon and Ben.  So they leave “O” alone and allow plenty of time for the revenge/recapture of O plot to unwind.

I also think the book is ultimately racist in effect in ways that turns up the general nastiness/nihilism factor to an uncomfortable degree.  Every brown-skinned person in the book, pretty much, is a disgusting, sadistic, torturing thug. (There are some semi-exceptions like O’s relatively good-hearted guard.  Aww, he loves his girlfriend!)  The book turns into what’s hard not to read as an allegory of slacker white America shaking off its pot lethargy and rising up to kick the ass of the brutal brown invaders.

This theme is laid out explicitly towards the end:

Chon has read a lot of history.

The Romans used to send their legions out to the fringes of the empire to kill barbarians.  That’s what they did for hundreds of years, but then they stopped doing it.  Because they were too distracted, too busy fucking, drinking, gorging themselves.  So busy squabbling over power they forgot who they were, forgot their culture, forgot to defend it.

The barbarians came in.

And it was over.

Winslow to some degree protects himself against accusations of racism with occasional ironic shifts in perspective when we see that to some of the Mexican narco-terrorist types, it’s Chon and Ben and O., in their shiftless Anglo ways, who are are the “savages.”  I didn’t really buy it, though, and it’s not enough of a counter-weight against the morbid wallowing in visions of the sadistic kingpin Lado contemplating the rape and then beheading of O.  It’s a classic old-fashioned captivity narrative with the beautiful Anglo in the clutches of the dark-skinned savage, with all the suspense of the narrative depending on the question of whether she will be rescued before she is raped.

[That one of our heroes is named “Chon” is perhaps symptomatic of the tensions/ambiguities around ethnicity in the novel… it sounds like a Hispanic name, but it’s actually a nickname for John]

The nastiness is often witty but felt too xenophobic/racist in worldview in the end for my tastes.  And the premise of the revenge plot just didn’t make sense to me.  That said, it does have style to burn and can be pretty funny.

I’ve read very mixed reports on the Oliver Stone movie: some seem to see it as a return to form and his best film in years, but I’ve seen a couple reviews that call it borderline unwatchable and absurd.