Theater As The Last Bastion For The C-Word

Mamet, LaBute (see, for example, discussion about the two of them) and now Ethan Coen; three and it's a trend:

City Lights follows a butthead musician, Ted (Joey Slotnick), who spends an awkward afternoon with Kim (Aya Cash), a ditzy stranger, and her judgy friend Marci (Cassie Beck). Kim pursues Ted though she knows he's a "dream squasher." The play's nihilistic denouement — Ted drives Kim out of his apartment, bellowing "Cunt!" — meets only Neil LaBute's standard for nuance.

What is it about theater where playwrights feel obligated to beat audiences over the head with that one word that still shocks? You get the sense that in the recesses of a writer's mind, he or she (generally "he," it seems) defaults to the C-word because if it weren't for it, nothing else that happens on a stage would move people. It's sort of like, "C-word! Pay attention! Still relevant!" Did Ethan Coen — as someone who is primarily a filmmaker — subconsciously pull the C-word from the Mamets and LaButes before him?

Posted: December 7th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Half-Baked Theory | Tags: ,

Challenging, Revolutionary And Totally Unreadable

The Book Club just finished James Agee and Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the New Deal-era assignment (commissioned by Fortune magazine) the writer and photographer took on in 1936 to document the lives of tenant farmers in the Deep South.

It takes a while to discern, especially when you're distracted by the way Agee perseverates on erections and such, but Famous Men is of a piece with Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, another equally unreadable book. With Tropic of Cancer, at least Miller sketches out the philosophy a little more clearly, specifically on pages 239 to 258 and further boiled down to this:

When I look down into this fucked-out cunt of a whore I feel the whole world beneath me, a world tottering and crumbling, a world used up and polished like a leper's skull. If there were a man who dared to say all that he thought of this world there would not be left him a square foot of ground to stand on. . . . If now and then we encounter pages that explode, pages that wound and sear, that wring groans and tears and curses, know that they come from a man with his back up, a man whose only defenses left are his words and his words are always stronger than the lying, crushing weight of the world, stronger than all the racks and wheels which the cowardly invent to crush out the miracle of personality. If any man ever dared to translate all that is in his heart, to put down what is really his experience, what is truly his truth, I think then the world would go to smash, that it would be blown to smithereens and no god, no accident, no will could ever again assemble the pieces, the atoms, the indestructible elements that have gone to make up the world.

Meaning, in my mind, if literature, books and writing are about anything, they're to express life and the world as it actually exists, in Miller's case, vis a vis gonorrhea, cunts and bed bugs.

It's an adolescent view, of course — reminds me of the mental gymnastics one goes through before you realize a white lie is sometimes better than the truth — but in an early-20th century artistic milieu that now saw the world as it actually appears (i.e., photography and film), you can see where writers might have felt a little threatened.

Agee is somewhat more interesting in that his writerly worldview was directly challenged on a daily basis, what with Walker Evans working directly beside him. You get the sense from Famous Men that Agee was keyed into this quandary from the beginning, and worked to "out-real" what was real. Thus the erections.

And the bed bugs. The bed bug part (pages 374-377) blows away any of Miller's bed bug depictions. Youch!

And what you perceive as Agee's desire to fuck a bunch of poor Southern whites. Not fuck over, though he does that, too — it's a good thing they're illiterate and Famous Men is so unreadable because it'd be bizarre to see yourself depicted as he depicts them — but literally have sex with them. I admire his honesty here but, geez, really?

The first sentence of Walker Evans' 1960 foreward seems to telegraph that he understands there's an adolescent tinge to Agee's writing: "At the time, Agee was a youthful-looking twenty-seven." It's an explanation of sorts, or at least I read it as such. He also adds that "[s]ome parts . . . read as though they were written on the spot at night." Yes, they do! They read sort of like the kind of idea that seems brilliant at 3:30 a.m. until you look at it the next morning and think, "Huh?" (He also says that Agee actually left out certain passages that were entertaining in an "acid" way; when you read this you can't imagine what he possibly left out.)

For some reason J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye popped into my head this week while I was trying to get through Famous Men. I sort of see James Agee's persona as Holden Caulfield if Holden went on to Harvard and stayed irascible, but of course the timing is off — Holden Caulfield is James Agee spun backward in time. I wonder if Salinger intended to take the "immediacy" of Miller and Agee and tighten it up a little bit (and comment on the adolescence of it all). If I had more time or inclination I'd look up that lousy idea and see if any other phonies have beat it to death, but not now.

I suppose it's true that without Agee and Miller you wouldn't have blogs, reality television, literary nonfiction and amateur porn, so that's something. And it is interesting to see American literature in its cranky adolescence. But ultimately I wonder who actually read this thing — and I mean cover-to-cover read it. Besides Lionel Trilling, that is.

Seriously though, as a think piece, it's good. The best part of the book is in the "Notes and Appendices" section at the end where Agee reprints an article about Margaret Bourke-White photographing life among the tenant farmers, I guess around the same time. Where you get the sense throughout Famous Men that Agee beats himself up for deigning to contain a pathetic human life in a volume of words, it's funny to see the breezy way Bourke-White is depicted in whatever article it was — how whipsmart she was and how deftly she captured these supposedly off-the-cuff images. It's a big fuck you — like Agee is saying, "Yeah, you did that? I doubt it."

One big missed opportunity was Agee not going further and questioning the motives those who gave them the assignment to begin with and the implications thereof. It would have made his philosophical point clearer at least and would have hammered home the idea that when it comes to literature, we are all guilty.

Between the Wikipedia and the Library of Congress you can basically figure out who is who in the pictures. The guy on the cover is Gudger. A tidbit even more ironic than the title itself: You can buy a fine art print of Gudger's kitchen for $85. I say if you do so, you should be forced to read Famous Men before you get the thing matted.

And then there's this: Fortune returned to Hale County in 2005 and found that the descendents were pissed. Agee died in 1955, so why not give these people the last word? First Ricketts' daughter:

Laura Minnie Lee Tingle. Elizabeth's younger sister. The wide-mouth girl with side-swept hair who appears in several Walker Evans photographs. She stands before me now, fearful and alone, her dog at her feet, with eyes that say plainly what she's too polite to speak: She wishes I had not come. "This is my momma, right here," she confirms, looking at the book of pictures I have brought. "That's my baby sister … that's my mother … this is my two older sisters … that's my two brothers right there … that's me and my sister."

Laura Tingle, who as a girl liked watching the grownups boil sorghum and skim the brine to make sweet syrup, and found occasional pleasure even in the backbreaking labor of picking cotton ("Well, yes, sir, I liked it. It was something to do"), and remembers well the arrival of two strangers from up North. "They was down in Greensboro," she says. "They come out to the house with my dad. What did I think?" She snickers. "I didn't think. I really wished they hadn't a showed up. I just wished they hadn't a showed up. After they published that book. They called my mama a liar and ever'thin' like that. I didn't like it." She snickers again. "They told a lot of things that was wrong. They just said they was making pictures. They didn't say they was reporters."

And then Gudger's grandson:

Another Burroughs, Phil, son of Floyd Jr., grandson of Floyd, lives in Moundville, maybe five miles as the crow flies from Mills Hill. Phil is a big man, works in maintenance for the city of Tuscaloosa, is still wearing his blue work pants and blue work T-shirt when I arrive in the early evening at his house out on the quiet edge of town, where the neighbors keep horses and grass grows in the pasture across the fence. Phil has those gray Burroughs eyes, but with a pinch of blue. He sits sideways in the porch swing, that's his spot, with his wife, Patti, a schoolteacher, and their two sons, Andrew and Jedadiah, seniors at Hale County High, silent and respectful, completing the circle. Phil is cordial but reserved, not exactly sure why I'm here, even less sure at first that he wants me here.

So your father would talk to you about the book?

"He would."

He was angry about it?


Purely angry about it?

"No doubt. And to be honest with you, I think he had a right to be. I honestly do. You were looking at people that were struggling to put food on the table, you know? It was a simple life. They didn't have anything. Everybody wants something. That's probably the American dream. Everybody wants something. So it kind of left a bad taste in everybody's mouth. Maybe that's hard for a lot of people to understand, but it absolutely did. It made him upset, it really did. They were cast in a light that they couldn't do any better, that they were doomed, ignorant. How would you feel if somebody cast your folks, your parents, or your grandparents in that light? Even though I know they were real poor, no doubt about that, but they weren't ignorant, and they definitely weren't lazy."

Posted: September 23rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: , , , , ,

And That Was How My Jonathan Franzen Back Tattoo Became Two Indian Maidens In A Canoe

The Brooklyn Paper writes about a new coffee table book about people's literary tattoos — not so much literate tattoos but rather tattoos literally about literature:

Friends Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor noticed a rise in these literary tattoos, from highbrow pieces inspired by James Joyce's "Ulysses" to the covers of the "Twilight" books. They sent out a call for submissions, and the tattoos came pouring in.

The resulting anthology has more than 150 color photographs of literary tattoos, ranging from lines of verse, quotations from authors, illustrations of scenes depicted in novels and poems, and even a flaming typewriter.

"We tried to present the crème of the crop," said Taylor, a Bushwick-based author who, as far as these things go, is tattoo-less. "We wanted a lot of diversity and to be as all-encompassing as we possibly could. You'll find some high literary stuff in there — Pynchon, T.S. Eliot, 'Moby Dick' — as well as J.K. Rowling and Stephen King."

Now maybe this does illustrate the importance of literature, the timelessness of the great themes, the power of words. Or maybe it just confirms what I've long thought about tattoos, which is that there isn't anything really worth permanently inking on your skin. I mean, do you really want a tattoo of something you do to kill time on a cross-continental flight?

It's not to say that Moby Dick isn't a classic but rather that I'm not sure I got the same thing out of the book as someone who has a tattoo of it.

I only read Moby Dick fairly recently, in a spate of wanting to finally get out of the way some of those "timeless," "important" books that have clogged up our bookshelves for years. So I packed it in my bag and took it with me to work, and knocked out that bad boy in eight lunch hours at a chain coffee shop in Midtown.

If I saw a tattoo of Moby Dick, here's what would come to mind.

1) Sperm. Specifically, Chapter XCIV — "94" to you and me — "A Squeeze of the Hand":

Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, — Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.

After Jen and I visited the Taj Mahal, the earnest tour guide turned to us and said, "There are two people in the world — those who have seen Taj and those who have not; You, my friends, have now seen Taj." In a similar way, the world changes once you have read Melville's sperm chapter.

I guess it depends where you read it, too. I don't know how I'd feel taking that in on a cross-continental flight. In the chain coffee shop, it came off like this: "Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever" — [fellow patrons looking productive on their laptops] Tap tap tap tap-tap-tap tap tap tap, tap tap tap tap-tap-tap tap tap tap — "In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti" — skweeek! [the squeal of a wooden chair scraping the floor], skrrrrroneeeek! [a table moving lazily against the tile] — "A sweet and unctuous duty!"

On the one hand, yes, nineteenth-century realism. On the other hand, that's what you want to tattoo?

2) How About An Editor? While the sperm chapter almost rises to a level of pure tattoo-worthy genius, I'm a little perplexed about the long passages detailing stuff like the "interior structural features" of whales (Chapter 103, "Measurement Of The Whale's Skeleton"). Here you are, page 650, and Melville goes on a tangent about the whale's skeleton — you think, we're in the home stretch, and this? It's less realism than an Asperger's symptom.

Chapter 105 details arguments for why or why not the whale's magnitude will or will not diminish — Pliny is consulted, comparisons are made between herds of whales and herds of buffalo (imagine what would have happened if Melville decided to write a book about buffalo — you'd be tattooing a buffalo somewhere), and the eventual oil-for-bloodletting conclusion that the species is "immortal." Maybe you don't realize that when you tattoo Moby Dick on yourself, you're actually tattooing a rationalization of our resource-depleting society, and when I see that tattoo, the only thing I think — besides sperm and besides absent editors, that is — is that Moby Dick will kill Mother Earth.

It's not until Chapter 106 — 106! CIII! — that the book starts to coalesce into something you "recognize" — in the way you "recognize" Jeopardy! questions, bumper stickers and I guess tattoos, too. The chapter about Ahab's Leg sort of jumpstarts that cool psychological sketch Melville does that you always hear about, but 665 pages and 105 chapters of setup? Really? You know what a literary agent would say about this if she consented to reading a draft?

Maybe the person who tattoos Moby Dick on him or herself had a different experience with the book. That's OK, I get that . . .

Re: Pynchon/Joyce . . . I guess if you make it through Gravity's Rainbow or Finnegans Wake then you deserve the tattoo.

More from the Brooklyn Paper:

In addition to Talmadge, there are Bryan Waterman's portrait of Walt Whitman; William Clifford's seven tattoos, the most from one person featured in the book; Cristina Moracho's Albert Camus tattoo; and Stephanie Anderson, a manager at Greenpoint bookstore Word, who has nine literary tattoos, including "Words, words, words," from "Ulysses."

Whitman, eh? Quite a beard, no? But a tattoo?

I also read Leaves of Grass around the same time as Moby Dick. I actually had two copies, both of them gifts (maybe the gift givers thought I looked like Whitman or something?), and their presence on our shelves haunted me for years. My impressions of Whitman definitely included "Camerado," "Calamus" and "O Captain, My Captain," but my overwhelming impression was someone who was somehow both death-obsessed and a straggler. Chapter 34, "Sands at Seventy," is as much about Whitman as "that guy" as it is about an aging poet:

Shunning, postponing severance — seeking to ward off the last word ever so little, e'en at the exit-door turning — charges superfluous calling back — e'en as he descends the steps, something to eke out a minute additional — shadows of nightfall deepening, farewells, messages lessening — dimmer the forthgoer's visage and form, soon to be lost from aye in the darkness — loth, O so loth to depart!

Which is to say, Whitman was the kind of guy who just didn't know when to leave, who you'd see to the door only to have him remember some bleary-eyed 2 a.m. detail that could have waited until the morning, or even the next time he came by. And it's only after Whitman finally leaves that you close the door and sigh: Look at all those dishes, look at the chip dip hardening on the sides of that serving dish, look at all those crumbs caked into the carpet; this will take hours to clean up, and it only gets later as you hover over the pile of dishes in the sink wondering where to start. Maybe that sort of thing flies in Camden, but . . .

There are no hits for "Henry Miller" on the book creators' website. Can you imagine that one? If I saw a Henry Miller tattoo, the first thing I'd think of would be "cunt," just like the Amazon Key Phrases feature says:

Amazon Tropic of Cancer Book Page Screen Grab, March 21, 2009

Sorry, did I write "cunt"? I meant "rich cunt." (This was from March 2009, when our book club read Tropic of Cancer, but the key phrases feature is still on the book page, just scroll down.)

True to form, here's page five:

O Tania, where now is that warm cunt of yours, those fat, heavy garters, those soft, bulging thighs? There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt, Tania, big with seed. I will send you home to your Sylvester with an ache in your belly and your womb turned inside out. Your Sylvester! Yes, he knows how to build a fire, but I know how to inflame a cunt.

Seriously, Tropic of Cancer reads like the ten plagues of Egypt. Second paragraph: Lice. Second page: "The world is a cancer." Third page: Six-foot whale penises and Jews. Page 5: Reaming out "every wrinkle" in a cunt. Page 7: "Foggy farts" on windowpanes. Page 16: Getting erections from statues. Page 20: Cigar-smoking fetuses and sap-oozing thighs. Page 23: Syphilis! Page 35: Bright red cabbage breasts. Page 45: A golden-toothed prostitute's "bushy twat." It's relentless! And that's even before the bed bugs come in the picture.

I'm not always sure when or whether Jen is "Irishing up" a story, but she tells a good one about a guy she knew back in high school who was so psyched to have met the band Goldfinger that he told them he'd was going to go right out and get their logo tattooed on his back. Then he woke up the next day to discover the logo of the band Goldfinger tattooed on his back. Jen said that he went back to the tattoo artist and the artist decided that there wasn't much he could do to conceal it except perhaps to fill it in to look like two Indian maidens in a canoe, which is how this guy got a back tattoo of two Indian maidens in a canoe.

The point being, just who are these guys that you're tattooing on yourself? Part of it I think has to do with the bombastic nature of "the novel." I'm not totally sure I understand why something that clocks in at 100,000 words is something that we should or need to celebrate. I'm guessing there are few Leonard Michaels tattoos out there — but that's clearly his own fault, because if he wanted tattoos, he would have obviously wasted much less time writing all those short stories.

And going back to the tattooization of literature, I felt like reading some of these classics outside the context of a college seminar kind of highlighted how strange the books themselves actually were. It was freeing to see Moby Dick, for example, as less "a symbol for many things, including nature and those elements of life that are out of human control" (Wikipedia's thoughts, not my own) than a brilliant description of whale sperm sandwiched by 800-plus pages of crazy shit. And I felt comfortable zoning out during Books 33 through 35 of Leaves of Grass. And I didn't kick myself for skipping entirely On The Road.

I mean, can you imagine someone getting a Jonathan Franzen or Nicole Krauss tattoo? Right? Right?


Posted: October 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing, Clickthrough | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,