29 January, 2013

Some Time Hangs Heavily

When the words I need to set on the page won’t come, when none of the books on my shelf offer the escape for which I yearn, when the very existence of television is an insult to my being, when everything in my pitiable little boxed-up life is already arranged as orderly as it can be, when conversation with another human being is exhausting masochism, when my fingertips are rubbed raw from idle thinking, when the crumbling joint of my knee protests against taking another step, when the volume and pitch of even the soundtrack supplied by my headphones is too much to take, when the display on the clock at the head of my bunk is an unchanging mockery — it’s times like this that my mind makes some of the strangest connections.

Today I remembered something from Edward Gorey’s morbid little alphabet book, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, which a girlfriend gave me for my nineteenth birthday. Right after “M is for Maud / who was swept out to sea”:

N is for Neville
who died of ennui

Poor Neville.

23 January, 2013

Anatomy of a Bad Day

2:31 AM — Awaken to a guard’s shouted announcement of a standing-only head count.

3:?? AM — Fall back asleep.

6:12 AM — Awaken to breakfastgoers’ steel doors slamming.

6:?? AM — Fall back asleep.

7:25 AM — Awaken to my alarm clock. Stretch, cracking and popping self into shape.

7:32 AM — Penultimate high point of the day: coffee with Amanda Palmer (on headphones).

7:56 AM — Stand for second-shift guards’ monthly random standing-only head count.

7:57 AM — Change CD to Rasputina’s Cabin Fever and plan productive day.

8:39 AM — Lockdown lifted. Pinch finger in door upon exiting cell: instant bruise.

8:52 AM — Cellmate leaves for work. Perform morning toilet.

9:14 AM — High point of the day: phone call to Mum.

10:27 AM — Hand-wash laundry.

10:33 AM — Find guards searching my cell. Walk circles in wing to pass time.

11:00 AM — Lockdown announced for head count. Guards emerge from cell.

11:01 AM — Restore order to cell. Confiscated rags delay cleaning of spills.

11:48 AM — Ready workspace for continuation of new writing project.

11:58 AM — Lockdown lifted. Lunchtime announced over loudspeaker.

12:01 PM — Eat lunch: tuna salad sandwich, gluey macaroni and cheese, stewed tomatoes, cole slaw, banana.

12:28 PM — Return to cell, ready for work. Cellmate back early to claim his confiscation notice for excess family photos and to restore order to his footlocker. Writing delayed.

12:33 PM — Coffee. Walk circles in wing to pass time while cellmate organizes.  

1:43 PM — Cellmate returns to his job. Resume work on new writing project.  

2:36 PM — Bout of writer’s block. Stare at half-typed page.  

2:59 PM — Cellmate returns from work. Leave cell to afford him space. Talk with former cellmate Zach.

4:00 PM — Lockdown announced for head count. Jeopardy! interrupted by severe weather alert.

4:19 PM — Read uninteresting article in the New Yorker about “rewilding.”  

4:37 PM — Mail call: subscription offer, notice of Wired confiscation for “free stickers and violence.”

4:58 PM — Lockdown lifted. Leave cell so cellmate can perform prayer ritual. Walk circles.

5:36 PM — Old cartilage injury begins hurting. Nowhere to sit; locked out of “sacred space.”

6:07 PM — Dinner belatedly announced over loudspeaker.

6:09 PM — Eat dinner: processed turkey sandwich, instant potatoes and gravy, leftover mixed vegetables, brownie.

6:28 PM — Return to housing unit with rock salt in shoe.

6:31 PM — Take tentative shower under scalding water. Get heat headache.

6:47 PM — Clean T-shirt falls in puddle of brackish multi-shower runoff.

6:48 PM — Return to cell. Dress. Accidentally drop one of last two aspirin into toilet.

6:53 PM — Read disappointing article with typos, in the Writers Chronicle, on the craft of memoir.

7:29 PM — Leave cell to avoid nodding off to sleep. Immediately accosted by talkative know-nothing.

8:13 PM — Retreat to cell without causing chatterbox undue offense.

8:14 PM — Evicted from cell due to cellmate’s erratic digestive processes. Walk circles.

8:20 PM — Again set upon by motormouthed goon. Knee pain still unabated.

8:52 PM — Zach emerges from his cell to affect a rescue: “Gotta talk to you about …” nothing important.

9:01 PM — Zach and I avail ourselves of one open table in the wing, compare shitty days.

9:38 PM — Lockdown for head count announced early. Local TV news is especially inane.

10:08 PM — Stand for nightly standing-only head count. Perform evening toilet.

10:16 PM — To bed, exhausted.

10:?? PM — Fall asleep amid cellmate’s typical late-night channel-surfing.

11:17 PM — Awaken to crinkling of chip bag and cellmate’s crunching and lip-smacking.

11:?? PM — Fall back asleep.

11:58 PM — Awaken to knock on bunk beneath me: cellmate’s accidental head-bump during elaborate bed turndown process.

??:?? ?? — Fall back asleep. Final conscious thought: What a waste.

12 January, 2013

The List: Reading October Through December 2012

Staying close to my aim of finishing out the year by reading nothing but fantasy books, this quarter’s reading list is shorter than usual. This is partly because I spent so much time progressing through the 849-page Vedic scripture a friend ordered me out of the blue, partly because I was writing my ass off, trying to keep up with inrushing birthday and holiday mail while simultaneously forcing progress on two separate book projects, a couple of essays, a short story, and two pieces of poetry — everything but the partridge in the pear tree.

Wasting no more time on introduction, here’s what I read.

* * * * *

Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys
His American Gods, a novel about a man venturing out into the arcane societies of cast-off deities now living as taxi drivers and morticians and restaurateurs, was a terrific, fun read. Gaiman’s books are usually good at balancing elements of adventure, mystery, and his quintessentially British humour. Anansi Boys — the 2005 follow-up to American Gods, set amidst the same earthbound divinity but not dependent on the earlier book for anything, save its inspiration — works about as well as Gaiman’s other works, in this regard. It’s snarky and wry, with life turning very bad for its hapless protagonist, Fat Charlie Nancy, in ways only Gaiman the Brit could make funny: a suddenly deceased father (who, it turns out, was literally a god among men), a long-lost brother’s return, a breakup with his fiancée, a police investigation into Fat Charlie’s alleged embezzlement, and other sundry nastiness. Anansi Boys is a fine read for a weekend at the beach, or of lazing around in pajamas, eating bonbons — whichever.

John Updike, The Witches of Eastwick
The film version hammed it up, with Jack Nicholson chewing scenery while Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, and Cher tittered and giggled as though it were all one big joke, that whole witchcraft thing. The movie did away with any hint of drear, playing the story of three lonely women’s quest for an escape from their mundane lives as a goofy comedy, treating their existential crises like everyday ennui. For what it was, though, it was okay. But John Updike never struck me as the type of writer who would author anything so crude and obvious.

In the movie, we know from the very first that the rich stranger who comes to the titular Rhode Island town is the Devil made flesh, Darryl Van Horne, but, indeed, the casual blasphemies committed by that same character in Updike’s masterful novel are as nothing compared to what the coven of ladies dole out, in their quaint day-to-day existence as divorcées, in 1960s New England. The story’s conceit, it’s gleeful, supernatural subject matter, is integral to the plot, of course; however, all the magic reads more as a metaphor for womanhood, celebrating the feminine mystique. I think Witches makes clear that Updike was a man who adored the manifold complications and contradictions of the fairer sex. It’s a sumptuous book, dusky and heady as the smell of freshly dug soil, and I’m glad I didn’t allow Jack Nicholson to keep me away from it forever.

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
Truly classic, truly unsettling fiction, this exactingly paced horror story of six curiosity seekers’ experiences in a house of malign repute was a creepy treat for me. Effective horror, much like humor, is difficult to write, because of the atmosphere that must first be created — the connection with the reader that must be established in order to later deliver the chill or punchline. An author’s failure to construct that mood means the final flourish will be as much a waste of words as all that came immediately before it.

Absolutely nothing about The Haunting of Hill House is a waste. Every sentence, from the very start, when we meet the damaged, unstable Eleanor Vance, perfectly metes out the anxiety — the mounting, mounting, mounting dread — as what initially seem to be Eleanor’s innocuous quirks take on a frightful, sinister quality, following her arrival at Hill House. Shirley Jackson’s plot here is as intricately malicious as the house in which the tale unfolds, the house in which every angle is slightly wrong, in which the doors are off-center and the stairs aren’t level — a perfect architectural misdirection, inviting imbalance, inviting madness.

Genevieve Valentine, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti
What is it about the circus novel — so alluring to writers looking for a quick fix of the exotic, the mysterious, the compelling? I went on about this phenomenon, authors’ use of the circus as the backdrop for their story and failing, when I reviewed Erin Morgenstern’s exceptional debut, The Night Circus, so I’ll not belabor the point here. Mechanique was a title equally praised by Locus, and, after reading Ms. Valentine’s fine short story in the anthology Year’s Best SF 15 (a book I reviewed here), I expected to fall head over heels in love with this steampunk fantasy about the Circus Tresaulti. Valentine had a great premise: a postapocalyptic traveling circus functioning as refuge from an ongoing, bloody civil war. It would have made a fascinating short story. And indeed, that’s precisely what Mechanique feels like, with its clipped paragraphs and rapid-fire digressions — it’s a very, very long short story, stretched out, well past 280 pages, in a cascade of teasing asides that do less to intrigue than to annoy, like a too-long-dangled carrot.

A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (translator), Bhagavad-Gita as It Is
The young initiate looked more like he belonged in a skinhead gang than in the Hare Krishnas, with his black leather jacket and worn work boots. Maybe he thought my buzz cut and long, billowing coat made me look more like a Hare Krishna initiate than a goth boy. If so, we both perceived the other inaccurately when he accosted me just outside the courtyard of a Kansas City Cheesecake Factory, that early spring evening, many years ago.

Traffic had held me up, and I was late meeting my roommate for dinner. The initiate extended his arm to me, holding out a book, and said, “I’d like you to accept this as a gift from the Center for Krishna Consciousness.”

I smiled. Ah, the Hairy Fishnuts. In the comic strip Bloom County, Opus the penguin has a run-in with a flower-bearing Hare Krishna and some hilarious miscommunication ensues, which indelibly etched itself into my brain. Now it’s impossible for me to keep from snickering to myself whenever I think about “the Hairy Fishnuts.” But my smile was also from happiness at receiving a new book — something I appreciate at a fundamental level, even when its subject matter isn’t exactly riveting. The book in question was a slim Bhagavadgita, a book of ancient Hindu scripture, which I knew only as the basis for the Hare Krishnas’ faith. The world’s religious myths have always interested me; I looked forward to learning about Krishna and his devotees. Plus, the book was a hardcover, colored a pretty blue. Sliding it into the inner pocket of my coat, it was with genuine gratitude that I told the young man, “Thank you.”

I took a step toward the restaurant doors then, and he moved to block my path once more. He asked, “Would you care to make a freewill donation to the Center?”

“Not especially,” I said, not unkindly. “Besides, I’m not carrying any cash.”

“Oh,” he said. His friendly smile wavered. “Then I have to ask for the book back.”

Thinking he was joking, I laughed, “What?”

“Yeah, sorry. I can’t let you have a book unless you make a donation.”

“You said it was a gift.”

“It is, if you make an offering.”

“Then it isn’t a gift, it’s a transaction. But you already gave me the book. I wouldn’t have accepted it if you’d told me I had to pay. Besides, how can a ‘freewill’ offering be mandatory?”

His shoulders slumped as all the proscriptions his faith makes against anger, attachment, anticipation of the fruits of action, and giving gifts with expectation of return slipped from his mind. “Look, dude, just let me have the book back.”

“You said it was a gift,” I reiterated. Suddenly I found myself in a battle of semantics, stubbornly determined to hold my ground against the reneger, for there were principles at stake (roommate and cheesecake be damned!). “I’m keeping it.”

Back and forth we went, two bald guys arguing on the sidewalk, luxury sedans crawling past us on the street, well-heeled pedestrians giving us a wide berth, probably fearing that one of us was an insult away from whipping out a bicycle chain and settling the matter, street punk style. At last I decided I’d had enough. I reached into my coat and flicked the book, the sacred Frisbee, out into traffic. “There,” I deadpanned. “If you want it back so badly, go get it.”

I left him at the curb, staring blankly as he waited for the cars passing over the recently contested prize to stop, so that he could rush out to retrieve it, dust off any grit or road grime, and re”gift” it to some other hapless passerby.

My slice of cake was delicious, my roommate amused by the story, and the young man gone by the time our dinner was over and we exited into the night. The encounter did nothing to discolor my impression of the saffron-robed ascetics, surprisingly enough (though, as you can tell from the “Hairy Fishnuts” thing, my opinion of them didn’t start out completely unsullied); I still wanted to know what their faith was about. So, fifteen years later, I read the book.

Bhagavad-Gita as It Is seems to be a super-deluxe edition of the Gita, complete with a thorough index, a glossary, an invaluable pronunciation guide, a series of glossy, full-color illustrations (“Plate 6: The insulting of Draupadi.” “Plate 13: The Demigods, being satisfied by the performance of sacrifice, supply all needs to man.” “Plate 32: At last Krishna showed Arjuna His two-armed form.”), and one of those nifty bound-in ribbon bookmarks I like so much. Its content, compared to that slim little blue-covered thing I was tricked into accepting, is expansive — over 800 pages, mainly given over to the translator’s theological interpretations of the original text. Pared down to basics, though, the Bhagavadgita is a Sanskrit poem that recounts a lecture on faith given by Krishna, the Godhead, to his mortal friend Arjuna, as they stand in a chariot and survey a battlefield. If you think this sounds like a great setup for an epic, you’re right. Unfortunately, because the Gita was adapted, in about the second century, and added into the Mahabharata (the aforementioned Hindu epic, about a civil war fought, probably quite excitingly, between five brothers and their 100 stepbrothers), it doesn’t deliver.

As a work of literature, I put reading the Gita — in any form — on par with trudging through the Bible’s book of Leviticus: all rules and regulations for living, without any life of its own. It certainly isn’t worth arguing over.

Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers
A profound mystical experience, or a syphilitic hallucination? That is the question, which troubled me until I surrendered and steeped myself in this heady poetic novel by renaissance man of letters (and one of my favorite singer-songwriters) Leonard Cohen. As is often the case with Cohen’s work, the book sits at the crossroads of the sacred and the profane. Oh, but it doesn’t only sit; it whips itself with barbed straps, an agonizing display of penitence, while muttering about love and fondling itself to a creased and folded photo of Brigitte Bardot. Published in 1966, one year before the release of his spare, haunting debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, the story Beautiful Losers tells rolls and writhes like the smoke off last night’s bacchanal bonfire, gliding from the erotic memories of a nameless Montreal man who mourns the deaths of his wife and best-friend-slash-lover, to the history of a seventeenth-century Native American Catholic Virgin, to the mad posthumous ramblings of the nameless protagonist’s polymorphous friend. With shades of James Joyce and William Golding, Beautiful Losers is all terribly mixed-up and lovely, reserved and debauched, luscious and bitter — a gorgeous, grotesque spiraling procession of the themes Cohen explores so adroitly.