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: , , , , , , , , ,