The Great Struggle: Pop Culture Favorites in 2015

History, which is a simple whore, has no decisive moments but is a proliferation of instants, brief interludes that vie with one another in monstrousness.
— Roberto Bolano

I am not as bleak about the future as Bolano, or so I set out to be. I am writing from a computer in a car as makes its way northward through what feels like the bowels of LA. South of here, in the heat of some forgotten desert, I can imagine the frantic mind of a tired novelist as he strikes at keys like a demigod to finish one final, apocalyptic sigh. It took me a year to finally finish Bolano’s 2666. The pages spanned the year’s breadth and I finished it just days before Christmas; without realizing it, it became the lens that colored the rest of the culture I experienced this year.

2666 is a book mostly concerned with violence and death; it seemed a fitting read for this violent year. Against its savage backdrop, I became mostly interested in cultural works that really struggled against something, whether themselves or some greater force. To borrow from Bolano, I wanted to observe “the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.” It was a year to get to know fear. How peripheral that task can feel at times; and yet, how essential it can become. Three interludes—a book, a television show and a documentary—stood out in their attempt to wage the struggle.

2666, Roberto Bolano

It turns out the future is bleak. The dessert is full of nightmares and each one appears like an apparition—hazy, determined and dressed in macabre robes. Composed of five parts, and originally intended to be released individually, the novel was instead released after Bolano’s death as one giant juggernaut of tensions that nearly crawl off the page as they beat towards a future that looks like a gathering baroque graveyard.

The novel focuses on a series of events and people that all converge around a growing sense of doom in Santa Teresa, Mexico (based on Cuidad Juarez): a group of literary critics looking for a reclusive German author, Benno von Archimboldi; a Chilean professor who arrives in Santa Teresa with his daughter and fears she will become another victim of the femicides that haunt the area; an journalist from Harlem named Fate who comes to Santa Teresa to report a story; a chronicle of all of the murders of hundreds of women and the police efforts to stop them; and a young German soldier and writer named Hans Reiter. Bolano brings all of these stories together will a mastery that is chilling. To read this book is to understand how a great master quarrels and bucks against wreckage and chaos. The pages are alive with mess and obsession and the story is a testament to the unfathomable nature of an evil that lurks outside every door.

The Auteur Spars: The Leftovers

With your feet on the air
And your head on the ground
Try this trick and spin it, yeah
Your head’ll collapse
If there’s nothing in it
And you ask yourself

Where is my mind?”
— The Pixies

We are in position to be overwhelmed with the sheer amount of great television. There is much too see and not enough time to keep up, or binge-watch everything that Netflix, Hulu and Amazon can produce. Earlier this year as Don Draper sat on that Big Sur cliff and reinvented himself yet again and Jon Hamm crawled onstage to finally accept his Emmy, a curtain fell upon the so-called Golden Age of Television and it was clear that another trend was forming: the uncompromising vision of the auteur. 

The best shows of 2015 demonstrated an unyielding, dazzling and often jarring vision: Jill Solloway’s Transparent, Noah Hawley’s Fargo, Sam Esmail’s MR. ROBOT, Ray McKinnon’s Rectify, and finally Damon Lindelof’s The Leftovers. I’ve had my challenges with The Leftovers since the first season, which left me battered but still committed to watching. The second season—with a change of location and a corrected course for the problems that plagued season one—was a chance to see Lindelof take novel, brave and desperate chances with storytelling, and it became (with some admitted reluctance) my favorite show of the year.

Lindelof's work in season two proves that he is a storyteller who is unafraid to take risks, and right mistakes of the past by doing so. International Assassin—arguably one of the best episodes of television this year—read as bold and strange and human, when it could have easily been penned as Lost-runoff, or showy storytelling with no substantive backbone. Though it may be tormenting to some, it is a show that never has been about answers. The great auteurs will go to battle with their most oppressing themes, and in many ways The Leftovers is just that—a return to a theme that seems to haunt Lindelof: understanding how humans behave when exposed to the most tragic and unfathomable situations, and the great mystery of existence that we’ll just have to let be.

FootnotE

For a very informative, funny and intelligent conversation about Lost, The Leftovers, storytelling and the perils of criticism listen to the Channel 33 Podcast with Andy Greenwald and Damon Lindelof.

  The Leftovers , HBO

The Leftovers, HBO

Romeo is BleedinG

But romeo is bleeding but nobody can tell
and he sings along with the radio
with a bullet in his chest.
— Tom Waits

I stood in the back of the theatre pressed inbetween a wall and a man who surely thought I was a coat rack to see this documentary. It was the one feature I didn’t want to miss at the Napa Valley Film Festival and it was the best documentary I saw this year. In fair Richmond, where we lay our scene, the documentary follows Donté Clark’s journey to transcend violence through spoken word poetry in a city torn apart by a turf war between neighborhoods. Donté sets out to write an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in Richmond—a devastating plea to a city and a population of youth splintered by a senseless war that plays out much like the fates of the Montagues and Capulets. In this case violence is deeply rooted—inherited like a family heirloom—and grown into something much stronger than an epidemic, it’s an ideology.

Donte’s efforts—along with a very dedicated teacher and a local community organization—provides a platform for the community to speak out, and a reminder that a voice can fly as sharp as those rogue, cylindrical projectiles that ended so many lives this year. It’s a love letter to a city torn asunder, to youth, to the power of a voice, and certainly a plea for a peace—even if that plea may go unheard in the dark.

Directed by Jason Zeldes, best known for editing Twenty Feet from Stardom, the film traveled the festival circuit this year and is out for very limited release. I can only hope this film spreads into the places where it belongs—living rooms, schools, juvenile prisons, and places like Richmond where the only chance for peace might be something as unexpected as poetry. And if that may be the weapon, wage on.

  Romeo is Bleeding , A Documentary Film by Jason Zeldes

Romeo is Bleeding, A Documentary Film by Jason Zeldes






Shortness of breath: Ten Stories

The following are ten, wonderful short stories that are available to read online. I have chosen them because they represent different literary periods and are told with different voices and new types of language. I could have selected 50, but I'll leave you with this for today. Consume them all together, or sift through them with a slow hand. But certainly don’t underestimate them for their brevity—it’s always the fleeting things that leave us winded. Learn the language of shortness of breath, and lap it up with page-stained tongues.

Hint: Click on the title to be directed to the story.

James Joyce, The dead

If you haven’t read any of Joyce’s great beasts yet, consider this your toy-box introduction. The Dead carries all the weight of his other works but will not give you carpal tunnel from leafing through the pages. It's also a great dive into Modernist literature's themes and nightmares: centered around a party it conveys a sense of impending tragedy, demonstrates the fragmentation of reality and internal perception, and culminates in an epiphanic moment that brings forward ideas of mortality, rebirth and resurrection. It was one of my first forays into the Modernist sensibility and I’m still in love with it. Read this story with today's zeitgeist in mind and see what it tells you about this "less spacious age"—perhaps we’ve always been trying to crawl out of that creaky modernist vessel.  

John Cheever, The Country Husband

I could have directed you to The Swimmer, but I’m partial to The Country Husband in this case. The story follows Francis Weed, a suburban businessman who survives a plane crash at the beginning of the story, only to return home and find that his family is too busy with their evening rituals to care. What follows for Francis after his incident is a blend of fantasy and reality, where reveries prevail over the physical world and at nightfall men can climb snow-capped mountains and ride elephants like kings. This is what Cheever does best, cloaking the mundane in the absurd and extraordinary—often leaving us unsettled along the way.

Amy Hempel, In the cemetery where al jolson is buried

If you haven’t yet read Tumble Home, pick it up this weekend and devour it like dry earth that breaks open for wetness—because it will require an opening and in the end it will devour you instead. I read Hempel for the prose and her brilliant, infuriating skill with metaphor: “She laughs, and I cling to the sound the way someone dangling above a ravine holds fast to the thrown rope.” Within this short story and inside her terse, but witty and tender language there is more understanding of grief than anywhere we could go looking for it, should we least expect its advances upon us in the meantime.

George Saunders, The Semplica-Girl Diaries

From the structure, to the language and the story itself I don’t think I’ll ever forget the imagery that this narrator and his Semplica girls left behind. No one quite paints a world like Saunders, and adopts the language so masterfully to match that vision. The diary entries that inform this story chronicle both the banality of days and major themes of oppression, aspiration, covetousness, and the sadness that often comes with being responsible for another’s success or happiness.

Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

At times reading a Carver story feels like discovering the bones of something meaningful and hoping there is more. His spare prose and brisk way with developing story off the page can feel a bit jarring. But I deplore you to let Carver punch you around a bit with his craft; a few days later you’ll find that his stories are still clattering around in your ribcage. From the collection of short stories of the same name, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is one of his most famous stories and has an ending I could never forget, even if I tried. 

Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro

Mortality. Drink. Women. Sex. Discontentment. Love. The consequences of money. And masculinity while we're at it. The artist’s burden to create, and the desire to somehow endure. That corporeal grappling with time and belief (in anything) and the willingness to write about it in a world that has numbered our days. It’s classic Ernest, and it’s always worth a revisit to the mountains that have slain us. 

Flannery O'Connor, A Good Man is Hard To Find

The queen of the Southern Gothic will twist you into knots with this story that begins like comedic satire and quickly moves into tragedy. If goodness is only momentary, is it goodness at all? And what place does grace have in the same sentence as evil? Find out for yourself, for the beauty of this story is reading it for the first time and letting the story's moral terror sink into you like a field's first plow.

Dave Eggers, About the Man Who Began Flying After Meeting Her

How apt a hand that crafts whimsy, hope, love, adventure, weightlessness, obsession and a sense of impending sadness in just 377 words. It's worth the few minutes it will take you to read.

Virginia Woolf, Monday or Tuesday

Everyone should have a lurid affair with Virginia’s prose at some point and this artful stream of consciousness bares her signature—the weight of time, an unmet desire for truth, and the use of color, nature and everyday surroundings to demonstrate a yearning for something more than this moment in time, perfectly kept. If the prose isn’t for you, at least consider the punctuation; it's an art form.

Vladimir Nabokov, Symbols and Signs

Call it a weakness, but I’ll never be able to compile a list on writing without including Nabokov. Very little happens in this story, but every moment and object inches us further toward calamity—the hospital, the missing keys, jam, soiled playing cards and phone calls. And yet, there isn’t anything that Nabokov doesn’t make sing on the page, including jam apparently. But it’s the symbols and signs themselves that one should look out for—are they the story itself, or are they empty talismans that distract us from a much more pressing narrative at hand?

A Disclaimer

These are not the ten best (how could we ask that of them?), nor are they the only (there is a menagerie of worlds like this we could fill our heady days with). A special note of “I really wish I had more than ten stories” goes out to Franza Kafka, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ray Bradbury, Jayne Anne Phillips, Sherman Alexie, Lydia Davis and so many countless others.

The Novelty of Fiction and Summertime Reading

There’s a sound that summer makes—hot off the tongue and quick to burn in untamed light. Sometimes it’s sinful like flesh singing on a hot grill, the slow sigh of a beer can’s remorse, or the cries from nighttime’s children as they chase the day’s foregone conclusion. Other times it’s languid—the quiet lap of water—a sensation that gives way to melting, more than anything. Time drools and promises that days may never end.

I’ve been thinking about summer reading lately, as my reading habits have differed significantly since last year. Perhaps all of ours have. Digital media and television have refashioned the way that we consume fiction. Since the onset of Tony Soprano’s panic attack in 1999, the "golden age of television" has been vying for the same time and attention we used to parcel out for reading novels. How could you be convinced to spend a few hours annotating Infinite Jest when you could indulge in some absorbing diversion on Netflix without ever turning a page?[a]

Do not mistake me, if it were released tomorrow I would watch five more seasons of Mad Men in five days in the kind of hazy stupor that only Don Draper knows how to wake from. I am a unrepentant fan of television and the masterful shows of recent years that unfold like novels and tell stories with the character development, nuance and restraint of great literary voices. What David Simon, Matt Weiner and Vince Gilligan have done for television is entertaining and critically lauded—reminiscent of the serialized Charles Dickens novels of the Victorian era.[b] It’s not a stretch to imagine people being as equally invested in the weekly adventure and overall fate of Oliver Twist as they were in Jesse Pinkman.

It’s easy to get enraptured, to follow the ineffable joy of becoming engulfed in the pace of plots dosed out like morphine. But here’s what’s strange about watching fiction on television: when I consume a show I am a visitor in someone else’s fully realized vision—asked to make assumptions, connect with fully drawn characters and often suspend belief—but I am not asked to imagine, create or decide; that work has already been done for me. Language has taken shape as either action or dialogue, characters are cast as discernible faces, and visual perceptions are arranged inside frames and parceled out for consumption by episode.

Do not mistake me, I’d love to tell you what makes Rectify and Mr. Robot so great this season. But for now, I’ll read a few chapters of a novel and hope that we don’t lose the seduction of reading language on the page. Perhaps reading a novel is like summer itself—tangible and carnal, demanding all of your capacity for attention at once, promising newness. It will take time. It will take imagination. It will eat at you if you’ve done it right. It will leave you hungry.

In the spirit of summer’s heady dance with the indefinite, I’ve suggested some reads that pair well with lakes, cabins, pools, beverages, beaches, airplanes, fields and whatever other weapon or vessel you have in mind. But don't call these beach reads; though they are as entertaining as television (gasp) and do not require spark notes (mostly), they are intelligent, imaginative, and persistent in their quest to uphold language and storytelling.[c] 

Featured Summer Read: The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach

There’s a sound I think of when I think of The Art of Fielding; a wooden snap that bobs in my memory like I’m eighteen and covered in grass stains that only youth could ever make last. I read this novel like a coed at play, never thinking about the consequences of time. There were moments so familiar, or seemingly so, that I wanted to live inside them. Part nostalgic, sometimes precious, but always firmly rooted in psychological realism—it speaks about sports, race, sexuality and identity in a way that is both old-world and fashionable.

Current Summer Read: All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

I’m reading this with a friend—together, but apart. Perhaps we’ll talk about it occasionally. Perhaps we won’t; but we’ll know that we’re reading the same thing at the same time. And, together, we’ll have two very different experiences because we are two minds apart, and that is a most intoxicating thing. Join us, if you'd like. 

Suggested Summertime Reads:

And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Footnotes:

[a] Those masterful fools don’t even let you press the “next episode” button yourself.

[b] Many comparisons have already been made between Dickens and television shows like The Wire (David Simon)—both imagined in the serial form, but enduring as the popular "fiction" of their time. 

[c] The ironic thing to be noted here is that many of these would make a perfect miniseries, or have already been considered for one by writers and networks alike. See: HBO Passes on The Corrections Pilot, Really Terrible Internet Casting Ideas for The Art of Fielding.

A Year in Reading: 2014

Taking a page from The Million’s Year in Reading, I compiled a list of the books that I read this year. It was the year that I set out to tackle a few of the weighty tomes that were taunting me from bookshelves, or tired of being made doorstops. I set out to see “the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”

Read More

“Who Will Sound the Alarm?”: The Stories of John Cheever

The other night in a fit of sleeplessness I picked up The Stories of John Cheever and read for hours—the pages lit unevenly by the light of a small portable reading light, the book itself under the heaviness of covers, concealed within the darkness of my silent, urban apartment. Eventually, when I was full and weary, I laid the stories down on the nightstand and fell back into a deeper slumber. I dreamt of rows of Dutch Colonials in Shady Hill lit up for dinner with carefully burnt casseroles, an outpouring of gin, barren swimming pools, and the leftover hours and lies between strangers and lovers alike—each one carefully observed and then slowly, with the hand of a gentle arsonist, set afire. I awoke thirsty, to the tune of a distant alarm.

It’s the language, of course—soaring, tight sentences full of phrases to make you weep—but most often it’s the imagery of Cheever that stays with me long after reading a story. Philip Roth proclaimed Cheever an “enchanted realist” and many also deemed him the “Chekov of the suburbs”. There’s certainly a suburban familiarity to the subject matter of Cheever’s stories—a distinct connection not only to that era, but the past itself. A great love for country, even the face of disillusionment, and the proclivity for nomadic migration battling against the need for a collective domestic identity. Who’s to say what came first: suspicion of love and intimacy, or the infidelity that follows the thread pull of any uncertain stitch. Fear of death—of darkness, and what solace might be sought through liquid: water, gin, and the dark sea of swimming pools. These are frequent motifs throughout his work, and yet there is a phantasmagoria of absurdity, coupled with the most beautiful understanding of human existence, that leaves my mind fraught with some of the most arresting depictions of American life:

The strange sounds of an enormous radio that tunes into the private lives and disasters of neighbors. The roar of a lion against the sounds of an Upper Manhattan sidewalk. A burned cake, giving off the sweet air of atomic ash to awaken a wife who prepares for the end of the world. A naked apparition, like Venus, walking through the suburbs combing her golden hair. Mr. and Mrs. Babcock running naked out from the terrace at nighttime. A key that dangles in the gorge of someone’s breasts, providing passageway to the Pastern’s bomb shelter. The secret stories written on the bathroom walls of Grand Central Station like scripture for common eyes to interpret. The murderous wife dressed in raincoat and shower cap watering the lawn as the rain falls down around her. And our dear Neddy Merrill: navel-less, wet and shivering under the passing of seasons, standing at the edge of the road awaiting passageway as he makes his cartographic journey home through swimming pools green with desire, and abandoned like hope. [i]

These are not the remnant images of some forgotten postwar suburban life. They are apparitions of the most basic of human desires and deprivations. Perhaps because of the unsettling nature of his stories, some readers proclaim Cheever to be a harsh narrator who cares little for his for subjects, examining them with white gloves and then releasing them for judgment, or otherwise. He is indeed an observer; but he watches with restrained emotional investment, slowly leaking details like the way light pervades the darkness. Gentle in effort, but shocking in perception—often leaving the most important observations until the very last light.

A favorite example of Cheever’s narrative technique is the third of Three Stories, where a gentleman audaciously tries to garner the attention of the beautiful woman sitting next to him on his flight to Rome. He is unsuccessful in many attempts against the weight of her sighs and the mystery of a book she sets up in between them. It isn’t until the ending of the story that the narrator ardently beckons us, “But look, look.”  At his signal it is revealed that the gentleman so earnestly seeking the attention of this woman is her husband, “and she is his wife, the mother of his children, and the woman he has worshipped passionately for nearly thirty years.”

The narrative structure implies an omniscient chronicler and places an exigent illumination onto a detail of the story that changes the lens through which we view the story. Had we known all the details from the beginning our perception would not have shifted so dramatically at the knowledge that this couple we’ve been intently watching is just another married couple. Our own conclusion of meaning falls onto the story at the insistence of a narrator who has given us the most important detail last. Look, look! He coaxes us, often tongue in cheek, and it’s not uncommon that he might walk right onto the page to make adjustments, set the scene, change the course of the story, or boldly proclaim himself.

The Death of Justina is not one of Cheever’s more famous stories but it is well known for a few distinct passages and as many of his stories do, it has a gut-punching beginning and reverberant ending. The narrator of this story, Moses, sets out to tell us a story that is an “example of chaos”; but not prior to warning the reader against the failure of memory, recollection and perhaps the dangers of narration itself:

“Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less) and we can accomplish this only by the most vigilant exercise of choice, but in a world that changes more swiftly than we can perceive there is always the danger that our powers of selection will be mistaken and the vision we serve will come to nothing.”

In his story Moses seeks to quit smoking and drinking, to bury his wife’s beloved Aunt Justina—who takes her last breath early in the story—and to maintain his job by writing a commercial script for a tonic called Elixircol. The condensation of American grievances: addiction, death, and advertising.

While grieving Moses dreams; he dreams of being in the supermarket with other nomadic shoppers where boxes and containers are left unlabeled, concealed in brown bags in shapes unfamiliar to mathematics. As he dreams, Moses is omniscient: “I was with them and I was withdrawn.” He observes and notices that his fellow male shoppers are brutish and expressive of deep guilt. After they have finished their selections in the market their choices are then revealed—to their great shame—and they are ushered out of the store where groups are taken away in a conveyance that even the omniscient narrator is unable to see. The dream sequence ends with Moses (or perhaps Cheever himself) pondering: “What could be the meaning of this?” With that, the dream is over. The following afternoon is Justina’s burial, in the rain. Moses ponders the role of the undertaker and their helpers and poses another question: “How can a people who do not mean to understand death hope to understand love, and who will sound the alarm?” 

Cheever’s restrained observance is what makes him so effective at giving voice and imagery to despair. He does not infer meaning, but only reflects the story allowing the heavy capacity of its contents to slowly unravel upon the reader. If anything, he is a narrator that asks questions of his audience. Throughout the unraveling, there is a sense of crisis that permeates into each of his stories. Whether actual or existential, a threat exists to the known order of things; but what is to be done—what can be done, if anything? 

Perhaps Cheever’s great ability is to to greet the absurd and the meaningful in the same breath, and then release them from his grasp without giving greater weight to either. It’s often not reality itself but the imagined—the dream, the fantasy, the ghost—through which we come to outline the underbelly of meaning in these stories. The omniscient narrator knows all, but tempts us only with the details that illuminate the more harrowing human pitfalls: the things that we invent to survive, and the dark seeds we bear under the armor of those inventions to face of the ineffable nature of life, and of death. After all, how can we come to understand love if we do not mean to understand it’s most chaotic adversaries; and indeed who will sound the alarm?


If you cannot bear to read the whole collection, start here

Goodbye, My Brother; The Country Husband, The Seaside Houses, The Ocean and The Swimmer. But seriously, read all of them.

The Maddest of Men

In my insistence to spend further time with Cheever and remain with these stories, it became very clear to me that his influence is prolific throughout modern fiction and pop culture, especially found in those retro reexaminations of the American Dream. After all, no one does suburban discontent and general ennui quite like Cheever.

So it’s no coincidence that Cheever's home of many years, Ossining, NY, is also the town where Mad Men creator, Matthew Weiner, decided to set the eggshell home of Don and Betty Draper. You can find the shapes and stories of Mad Men in many of Cheever’s stories, with special attention to: The Five-Forty-Eight, The Bus to St. James’s and The Season of Divorce.

There are a few images that stand out to me: the empty elevators in The Bus to St. James’s that often appear to Don as a trope for fear and death, and it’s certainly no coincidence that when Don tries to get sober physically and mentally in The Summer Man [ii], he turns to the seas of the swimming pool. A watery motif that shows up many times in Cheever's stories; a method of exercise and escape that the writer frequently turned to himself.

 Don Draper as The Swimmer, AMC's Mad Men

Don Draper as The Swimmer, AMC's Mad Men

Another great scene appears in the first season of Mad Men, during the episode Shoot [iii]. At precisely 1:00pm after completing all her household chores Betty goes outside in her pink nightgown with a shotgun, never releases the burning cigarette hanging from her pink lips, and begins shooting at the neighbors pigeons. Revisiting this episode, I imagined it as told by the voice of Cheever. It feels so directly inspired by him and it could easily be slipped into the pages of the The Ocean without disruption. As we near the second half of the final season of Mad Men [iv] perhaps the only thing I can hope for is an ending to the series that’s as desperate and absurdly human as the ending to any great Cheever story [v].

Footnotes, naturally

[i] In case you must read them right away this imagery is attributed to the following stories: The Enormous Radio, The Bus to St. James’s, The Wrysons, The Country Husband, The Brigadier and the Golf Window; Mene, Mene Tekel, Upharsin; The Ocean; and The Swimmer

[ii] A beautiful episode (Season 4, Episode 8) that even sounds like the title of a Cheever story: The Summer Man.

[iii] Season 1, Episode 9

[iv] I know it’s not until next year, please don’t remind me.

[v] See: The Country Husband, ending. See: John Cheever, any ending really.