Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What I've been ...

Reading: Last night I finished Desperate Characters by Paula Fox, a very good short novel about a childless married couple and their various psychological torments. It takes place over three days or so (when Sophie, the wife, is bitten by a cat) in Brooklyn in the late '60s, and in terms of the themes and circumstances reminded me of Rabbit Redux. Fox's prose is very good, and I recommend it for anyone who likes that Lish-influenced style of concision, clarity and wit as seen in writers like Joy Williams and Mary Robison. Here's a representative passage (Sophie has snuck out late at night for a drink with Charlie, her husband Otto's estranged partner):

"We've always been friends, haven't we?" he asked, ignoring her denial. "There's always been something between us, hasn't there? Don't look so scared. Oh, God ... Otto, Ruth, this country with its death rays and frozen peas ... I'm not so different from Otto. I want the past, too. I hate planes and cars and rocket ships. But I don't dare ... I don't dare. Don't you see? This war! Bobby is already sixteen. He can he drafted in a few years. Look at the mess!" 
"Sometimes I'm glad we don't have a child," she said. 
He didn't seem to have heard her. He slid out from beneath the table and went to the bar, returning with two more bottles of beer. 
"I had two miscarriages," she said. 
"I know you did," he said, sounding cranky. 
"I've got a uterus like a pinball machine, apparently." 
"Why didn't you ever adopt a child?" 
"We put it off and put it off and now -- we're such a settled childless couple." 
"It doesn't matter," he said. "They are hostages to fortune. I love them and they suffocate me. And it's a business, like everything else is these days, the having children business, the radical business, the culture business, the collapse of old values business, the militant business ... every aberration becomes a style, a business. There's even a failure business." 
"Then there's the committed, self-sacrificing lawyer business," she said. 
"I wanted only to be like Mr. Jarndyce, really. That is the kind of lawyer I wanted to be," Charlie said, rubbing his scalp furiously at a certain spot as though someone were hammering away from the inside. "You know ... of Bleak House. There is that scene when Esther Summerson is weeping in the coach, and old Jarndyce whips out a plum cake and a pie from his cloak and offers her both of them, and when she refuses, my God, he simply flings them both out the window and says 'Floored again!' What style!" He began to laugh, shouted "And flung them out the window!" and collapsed in the corner of the booth, choking a little and waving at the bartender, who was staring at them worriedly.  
"I think I've got rabies," she said.  
"Have a plum pie," he replied, snickering. 
"You're the one who doesn't care about anything," she said. "Oh, stop that stupid giggling!" 
"I care about everything," he said. "In my desperate fashion. It's desperation that keeps me going. Let's go wake up Otto. I want to tell him about Jarndyce." And he began to laugh again. Then he wiped his face with the back of his hand and looked at her intently. "Are you desperate?"

John just bought The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard and I'd like to dig into that next.

Listening to: The Smiths, obviously. I want to write a cento from Morrissey lyrics. Thinking a lot about this line especially: "I've seen this happen in other people's lives and now it's happening in mine."

Eating: Carnitas tacos with slaw, pickled onions and guacamole. This recipe is excellent.


  1. Most recent things I've read are Bodily Harm, a novel by Margaret Atwood and Nameless Dame (subtitled "Murder on the Russian River") a novel by Bart Schneider.

    Atwood's novel (which I really liked) -- it was published sometime in the early 1980's -- is about a young woman who makes a slim living writing lightweight fluff journalism, who goes through a general meltdown in her personal life, and finagles a trip to a Caribbean island country to escape from everything, only she naively gets involved in local politics and gets in deeper than she bargained for. A lot of good stuff in it about colonialism, and the ignorance of tourists, and a lot of personal-is-political reflection.

    Schneider's book is a detective story, more or less a sequel to his earlier novel The Man in the Blizzard, featuring several of the same main characters. The earlier novel took place in Minneapolis; Nameless Dame takes place in Sonoma county in California. A private investigator whose life is a little bit on the skids goes to northern California for a little R&R with a friend who has moved out there, onlyh there's been a recent murder, and he starts helping try to find to did the killing. Poetry karaoke bar, marijuana growers, right-wing religious fundamentalists, and (possibly) Russian mafia. I liked both novels, nice and low-key, plenty of dry humor, not too grim, good stories.

    Apart from the above, reading the Collected Poems of Naomi Replansky (recently published by Black Sparrow Press, now an imprint of David R. Godine) -- great taut tough powerful stuff -- and whatever other poetry I'm pulling from the shelf at random moments.

    Not listening to anything at the moment. A short time ago this evening, ate a corn muffin.

    1. Hope it was moist! The corn muffin, that is.

      I like Margaret Atwood a lot -- particularly Cat's Eye and The Blind Assassin. And Handmaid's Tale (is it A or The?) is on my shelf and short list for the summer. But summer's almost over!!

    2. It's *The* Handmaid's Tale. I read that one sometime back in the '90's, must have been -- I absolutely recommend it. Absolutely devastating. I would be inclined to recommend it to anyone *instead of* (for instance) Orwell's 1984, because Atwood's novel seems to me closer to the mark in the details she forecasts.

    3. You know, I read 1984 in high school, and found it (sadly) kind of forgettable, though I LOVED Animal Farm.

    4. I read 1984 on my own, twice, during my high school years, and loved it, but I'm not sure I'd be into it now. (I remember thinking Animal Farm was totally boring. Go figure.)

  2. Another one in the dystopian flavor (if one wants to use that word to describe the above books) that I also really liked is The Gates of Ivory, the Gates of Horn by Thomas McGrath. (I.e. the poet Thomas McGrath, author of Letter to an Imaginary Friend and various other works.)

    The Gates of Ivory, the Gates of Horn was originally published in the 1950's by Masses & Mainstream (a publisher more or less associated with the Communist Party), and was out of print for many years. It was published in a new edition by Another Chicago Press sometime in the late 1980's.

    It takes place in North America sometime a little in the future, with giant megacities on the east and west coasts, with the middle of the continent more or less surrendered to wilderness and wild living. The story has to do with a police investigator who is trying to find the leader of a rebel underground, and the deeper he digs, the more the clues keep leading back to himself. The book is full of raucous humor, not-too-subtle political commentary on the United States of the 1950's, and jibes at the idiocy promulgated by societies too much in love with technology.

    It's out of print right now, as far as I know, but worth it if you can track it down.