Sunday, November 27, 2011

Coetzee, Vonnegut, Hitchens

Three dudes with last name monikers.

Diary of a Bad Year
by J.M. Coetzee
Viking, 2007

A Man Without a Country
by Kurt Vonnegut
Random House, 2005

Arguably: Essays
by Christopher Hitchens
Signal/M&S, 2011

"Declinism is making headway," Thomas J. Courchene writes in his revealing 2011 essay, Rekindling the American Dream: A Northern Perspective. In decline, of course, is the United States of America ("America's status as the sole global superpower seems contestable"), and the momentum of the concept is footnoted thus:

Among the many studies and articles that raise concern about the future of America are Friedman (2008), Zakaria (2008), Steingart (2008), Bremmer (2010), Fry (2010), Stiglitz (2010) and Rachman (2011). For a more sanguine view, see Fallows (2010).

W.H. Auden famously termed the 1930s "a low dishonest decade." What are we to call the aughts?

The three books under review here could easily be added to Courchene's bibliography, though Hitchens is "arguably" both sides of that question. (Incidentally, the opening sentence of Courchene's essay is, "American exceptionalism seemed unassailable as the world welcomed the third millennium." Courchene's "northern perspective," i.e., Canadian point of view, is that keeping America at the top of the heap is in our best interest. So this isn't an anti-American crowd we're talking about here; it's a group of essayists trying to figure out WTF has gone down.)

9/11, of course. Globalism, of course. The rise of the Chinese, of course.

And a bunch of decisions to deregulate the banking sector and go to war, and war, and war ... and now what?

Deciphering Vonnegut's title is simple enough: America has disappeared itself. One might suggest that this is the natural conclusion of Vonnegut's oeuvre. But let's not oversimplify.

One notable piece in Vonnegut's book is titled, "Here is a lesson in creative writing":

I want to share with you something I’ve learned. I’ll draw it on the blackboard behind me so you can follow more easily [draws a vertical line on the blackboard]. This is the G-I axis: good fortune-ill fortune. Death and terrible poverty, sickness down here—great prosperity, wonderful health up there. Your average state of affairs here in the middle [points to bottom, top, and middle of line respectively].

This is the B-E axis. B for beginning, E for entropy. Okay. Not every story has that very simple, very pretty shape that even a computer can understand [draws horizontal line extending from middle of G-I axis].
Now let me give you a marketing tip. The people who can afford to buy books and magazines and go to the movies don’t like to hear about people who are poor or sick, so start your story up here [indicates top of the G-I axis].

You will see this story over and over again. People love it, and it is not copyrighted.

Vonnegut presents a number of prospective storylines and graphs (Courchene take note), and, yes, people do love some more than others. The American Dream is one people like: hard work and solid individualism leads to material success. Cue the strings!

Somehow, however, the 21st century has turned out to more of a downward curve. The Kafka storyline: We woke up and discovered we'd all been turned into bugs. I mean, we were broke.

Or we woke up to discover that America practiced torture. Wither the shining city upon a hill?

Coetzee's novel takes the form of essays on contemporary global topics (torture among them), supplemented with two parallel narratives about the narrator of the essays, his pretty typist and her boyfriend.

Thus there are fictional levels of "deniability" that the opinions expressed belong to the author himself, but I'm not going to discuss the mirrors within mirrors implications. In the space I plan to devote to these three books, I merely want to point out a common element. Struggle against absolutism; the conundrum of America in the 21st century; torture; the meaning of life.

Hitchens actually quotes from the Vonnegut book: "Commenting on Socrates' famous dictum about the worthlessness of the unexamined life, the late Kurt Vonnegut once inquired: 'What if the examined life turns out to be a clunker as well?'"

This question sums up the queries raised by Coetzee's novel as well. But it must be said that it is the contemporary context of all three of these titles that inflates the currency of the question. When the day-to-day vernacular includes "declinism" perhaps it is better to leave the stone of life's complexity unturned? All the better to amuse ourselves to death with our digital toys and swelling string orchestrated stories.

N'est pas?

No. Of course, not. Let's take a look at that torture question. Actually, let's take a look at Hitchens being tortured.

Hitchens can be both earnest and funny, and though the shock of seeing Hitchens waterboarded may strike some as humourous, it is not. (One is not boarded, he writes; one is watered. Also, he defies anyone to call this "simulated drowning;" one is, he writes, being drowned.)

Ever the dialectician, Hitchens provides both pro- and anti-waterboarding advocates their say, which returns me to Coetzee. The pro-side, Hitchens outlines, base their support of waterboarding on practical concerns. America is at risk, and we need to know information to defend ourselves. Coetzee, ever cautious of the manner governments claim the right and need for new abuses of power, includes in Diary of a Bad Year a note on Machiavelli:

Necessity ... is Machiavelli's guiding principle. The old, pre-Machiavellian position was that the moral law was supreme. If it so happened that the moral law was sometimes broken, that was unfortunate, but rulers were merely human, after all. The new, Machiavellian position is that infringing the moral law is justified when it is necessary.

And so here we find ourselves in the 21st century with low prospects of a way out.

Vonnegut is dead, and Hitchens is dying. I have not always enjoyed reading them. I have at times quarreled with them (with the them that is in my reader's head). I could not understand, for example, how Hitchens could be such an advocate of war in Iraq when the rhetoric (to say nothing of the decisions and actions) of the Bush administration was so inflated as to be fantastical. (Hitchens' essay on the journalism of Karl Marx in Arguably responded to my confusion in part. Marx (!) wrote vociferously in support of the Union during the American Civil War; he supported British Imperial intervention in India; he supported, in short, the modernization of the world, taking long-terms views over short-term consequences.)

Hitchens has been widely praised for his prose, and all I want to add here is that his essays can make me laugh out loud, and I wish more writers would sharpen their pens (or their iPads) and do the same.

I love Vonnegut's story schemes and graphs. I love this, too: "I think that novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex."

Coetzee should only be taken in small doses. I believe he has a sense of humour, but it is dry as toast (actually, Diary of a Bad Year, at times, is hilariously self-deprecating) and only revealed on close reading.

To America, I say, good luck. We need you to bounce back. Send us your wearied, your wanderers, your writers. Harness your brilliant idealism ...

And calm the fuck down.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Wandering the Earth: A Selected Stories Sampler

Wandering the Earth: A Selected Stories Sampler (e-book), published today at Smashwords. ISBN 978-0-9866206-3-8

And the Lord said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.

Table of contents:
  • Boys and Girls, Girls and Boys
  • Beginnings and Endings
  • Running with that Indian
  • Border Guard
  • Watching the Lions
  • Book of Job
  • Six Million, Million Miles
  • Yes, I Wanted to Say
  • Niagara
  • My Life In Television
  • Bonus Track: Hercules
Read these stories and more in:

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Richard Outram

It's never too late to make a discovery.

2011 is the year of the short story, but it's also the year to discover Richard Outram.

Porcupine's Quill has published The Esssential Richard Outram, edited by Amanda Jernigan.

Guernica has published Richard Outram: Essays on His Works, edited by Ingrid Ruthig.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Steven Heighton

Workbook: Memos and Dispatches on Writing
by Steven Heighton
ECW, 2011

Stealing from William Blake, W.H. Auden wrote (and abandoned) a slim book in 1939 that was eventually published and titled (after Blake's line) The Prolific and the Devourer.

I first came upon it in the late-1990s, shortly after a new paperback edition came out, and it dazzled me. One of my subterranean interests is learning about the moments of transition of individual artists. Think, for example, about Picasso and his different periods. Bob Dylan and the great variety of his career. Ditto: Shakespeare. Neil Young. Joni Mitchell. Margaret Atwood. Susan Sontag. Joan Didion. The Beatles (who did it all in seven years!).

The Prolific and the Devourer captures Auden on the cusp, or in the middle of, a great transition. WWII was imminent. Socialism was fading. Auden commitment to Christ beginning (renewing?). Full of aphorisms and deeply personal (internal) conflicts, The Prolific and the Devourer is a tremendous portrait of a deep soul undergoing change and grappling with what it means.

(According to Blake, the prolific are the creative, and the devourers the bureaucratic. Or as the back cover says: "In Auden's interpretation, the Prolific are those who produce: the farmer, the skilled worker, the scientist, the cook, the innkeeper, the doctor, the teacher, the athlete, the artist. The Devourers are the politicians who depend on what is already produced for their well being. The strongest and most bitter energies of the book are directed against the idea that art should serve a political cause.")

Thus, shortly later (or contemporaneously), Auden wrote September 1, 1939.

Oh, it's alright ma (I'm only bleeding).

Anyway, Steven Heighton's new book, Workbook: Memos and Dispatches on Writing, isn't like Auden's book. It doesn't capture an artist in transition. But it is also like Auden's book. It is a portrait of an artist. It synthesizes the energies of an engaged and deep-thinking writer into a slim volume that is highly readable, though dense, and well worth reading and contemplating.

At 74 pages (dedicated to John Lavery), the book had better be intense (I know you know what I mean); and it is.

Here's a direct quote from an interview with SH about the book:

OB: You also tackle the waning culture of professional literary criticism and the rising trend of writers reviewing one another in Workbook. Do you think it is possible for writers to review one another in an unbiased manner?

SH: Yes, so long as the writers in question aren’t friends or antagonists. If they are, an unbiased review is pretty much out of the question. That’s just human nature.

Of course, all reviews are biased on some level, but your question seems to be referring to personal, collegial, competitive biases, which are different from, say, intellectual or ideological ones.

OB: Workbook is refreshing in its focus on the writing process, rather than career-centric advice. How do you avoid getting too wrapped up in the business side of things?

SH: I’m not above that stuff, it’s just that the business side of things dismays me, so avoiding it is a breeze, like avoiding creamed corn, Coors Lite or reality TV shows. As for dispensing “career-centric” advice on the use of social networking to promote one’s work, avoiding that, too, comes easily, since my knowledge of the subject is nil: I don’t use Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. In fact, they all sound really useful, but — as I argue in "Given to Inspiration,” one of the essays in Workbook — a writer needs to be cautious about overextending his or her already stretched attention span and “expending [more time] as a compliant, efficient functionary — earnest secretary to [one’s] own little career.”

OB: How different would Workbook have been if you wrote it ten years ago? Has your view on any of these subjects changed over the years?

SH: I doubt it would have been very different if I’d written it ten years ago. But fifteen or twenty? Here are a few lines (from “Memos to a Younger Self”) that would not have been in that earlier version — and their conjectural absence will give you an idea of the kind of material an earlier Workbook might have contained: “Squash the temptation to accentuate, poeticize, or wallow in the difficulties of the writing life, which are probably not much worse than the particular difficulties of other professions and trades. Take a tradesman’s practical approach to your development: quietly apprentice yourself to language and the craft, then start filling up your toolbox, item by item, year by year.” 

I quote this at length because I want to accentuate the notion of transition. Heighton, note, says that he doubts that what he has written would have been different 10 years ago. But 15 or 20? This is both encouraging and discouraging to me. I like artists that change a lot (Dylan) over artists who remain clustered around a stable identity (most others). (Though, let's argue; is this true? Is this fair?)

Part of me would would prefer him to say, My thoughts are always a-changing; I'm always alert to alternative interpretations and perspectives. But where is the grounding in that? Where is the argument? If literature is a lover's quarrel, what's the point? One must take a stand. All the world's a stage. Perform.

And Heighton, in this book, takes stands.

He is in favour, as the interview above indicates, of judicious (non-ideological) reviews (and I hope this counts as one).

"Complaint," he writes, "is not criticism."

He instructs us as follows:

Good reviews appreciate books on the level of execution, aesthetic integrity, and achievement. Mediocre reviewers judge books by the degree to which they "identify with" or like the main characters. Bad reviewers like only what they can imagine writing themselves and lash out at anything they can't understand or which threatens their vision.

This is commonsenseical, but it begs for rebuttal. What is "aesthetic integrity"? What is "achievement"? What, even, is "level of excecution"? The brevity of the book, on these questions, leaves a hungry wake.

Also, a literary polemic that takes a point of view and takes a shot at defining and defending a (type of) "literature" is not necessarily a "bad review" or unwelcome. The spectrum of literary critical achievement, I would argue, is broad and accommodating of multiple approaches. To be blunt, I have heard people disparage Carmine Starnino's criticism because it is "negative" without allowing any acknowledgement that he goes to pains to promote a particular critical framework. One can admire the sophistication of the framework (and the insights derived from the framework) without also buying into the framework hook, line and sinker.

I would argue (and I think Starnino would, too) that it is the clash of frameworks that is the point of critical dialogue. It is the point of criticism. The sophisticated reader acknowledges multiple frameworks. As in politics, the point ought to be the continuation of the dialogue; not the dominance or absolute commitment to any one point of view.

George W. Bush's "You're with us or you're against us" has no place in literature, or criticism. Or politics, for that matter.

But, now, where am I going with this? Is Heighton some kind of neo-critic? Is he exclusionary? Absolutist?

No, I don't think Heighton is a neo-critic or an absolutionist. He a believer in dreamscapes and roads less traveled. He believes in aiming high and warns of the danger of careerism.

He knows how to wear Al Purdy's shirt.

Let me say clearly, I enjoyed this book. I recommend it. I'm trying to define my argument with it, which is mild.

I started this review by mentioning my interest in artists in transition. I don't know if Heighton is in transition. I hope so. I wish he had told us more about his changes.

Change came, and is a-coming.