Hieroglyphics and Nostalgia

April 30, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Wet Collection.

A couple of brief notes here:

I read “Postcards from Costa Rica” right after my last post, which is too bad, since it fits so well there.  It’s a really well done piece: short sections focusing on a movement or vector, primarily of animals (ants, an iguana, a sea turtle, etc.)  There’s a focus on the hieroglyphics formed or left behind by these movements which linger in the memory.  In the final section, Tevis makes explicit the comparison of these tracks and the marks of language on a page.  Language as word-pictures, as an art of memory.

The next piece, “The Rain Follows the Plow,” is the longest in the book, and seems in many ways its core.  (I keep calling them “pieces” because they often blend elements of essay, story, and poem.  Belles lettres would probably be the closest designation, but it’s hard to drop that into a sentence.)  It threads together the story of a homesteading woman in the Oregon high desert and the author’s experiences as a ranger at the state park that’s been formed on that land by the damming of three rivers.

There’s a deep vein of nostalgia in this story, for me, and in some unexpected ways.  It’s very good on the wistful joy of new love kept at a distance and savored in a half-chosen solitude.  That’s part of it, the most obvious part, and the sweetest.  But there’s a bigger picture nostalgia here.  There’s a spur-of-the-moment cross-country car trip that would give anyone over sixteen a pang for a time when a trip from Texas to Oregon wouldn’t cost you approximately three gajillion dollars.  There’s mentions of folks in speedboats, RVs, campers.  Maybe it’s just me (actually, I’m pretty sure it is), but it already feels like a memo from a lost era.  How will teenagers be reading road-trip novels thirty years from now?

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Memories and Specimens

April 27, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Art of Memory and The Wet Collection.

A serendipitous pair, these two. I’m enjoying bouncing back and forth between them. The Wet Collection, at least so far, is all about memory, nature, travel, personal codes of conduct, and the connections among these things. In more obscure and historical ways, The Art of Memory is about the same things, or at least how they were seen in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

The most interesting thread in TWC so far deals with memories and impressions of travel. “A Field Guide to Iridescence and Memory” records “specimens” found in nature: a damselfly “like a Christmas ornament,” a spider’s silky web encountered “One night, walking through the woods” (a nice mystery packed into that scene-setting), black opals owned by a couple in Oregon, retrieved from a mine in Nevada, a Costa Rican butterfly. There’s a nice paragraph then, transitioning to echoing memories of travel: “The iridescence of memory happens when one image (physical) illuminates another (imagined): not quite a reflection, but a refraction. These visions, these flashes of color come again and again. How then must I live?”

This juxtaposition, of memories and specimens, so nicely illuminates The Art of Memory. I’ve been reading about the art’s transformation by the thirteenth-century thinker Ramon Lull, often thought of as a magician, mystic, or alchemist (Yates disabuses me of most of my preexisting ideas of Lull, although he still seems something of a magus and was certainly seen that way during the Renaissance). As Yates explains it, Lull “introduces movement into memory.” He created this incredible system, intended to encompass all possible knowledge, based on Kabbalistic ideas of the names of god and medieval theories of the hierarchies of life and human knowledge. By linking God’s traits or “names” to the levels of being (angelic, celestial, human, animal, etc.) and the forms of human learning in mystical wheels-within-wheels which could be spun to match any of the three names with any of the levels, Lull devised a memory system he thought could be used to unlock the mysteries of the universe and, as a special bonus, reach out to Jews and Muslims and show them the truth inherent in Christianity, since aspects of his art drew on their own theological teachings.

(As a bookish aside: Lull’s books were among the first to use volvelles, those toy-like discs found in some early books, for a non-astronomical purpose.)

As Yates explains it, there’s a shift here from the eminently static art of memory encouraged in the ancient world and by rhetoricians, in which images were placed on sites to be recalled through the impact of the images and the familiarity of the sites, to Lull’s emphasis on memorization through repetition and the use of mnemonics which could be moved to keep one’s memory of the levels of knowledge sharp, and to move one up the “ladders” of the mystical Lullist art toward knowledge of the Trinity. Isn’t it interesting, then, how Joni Tevis contrasts the term specimen, with its connotations of pinned butterflies, taxidermied trophies, and precious stones, all eminently dead, with the fluidity of memories, always shifting as our perspective changes, as they recede or are “refracted” off of other experiences, other memories? (Interesting, too, but perhaps misleading, how Tevis also writes, in the section of this story entitled “What I Want,” “To know what it means to live a biblical life, uncloistered every day. This is my book of new ritual…”)

The arts of memory persist, in ways profound and banal. Since it’s so much on my mind lately, advertising occurs to me as an obvious (if lame) application. Aren’t most commercials intended to provide a mnemonic — a jarring, memorable image which carries a “message” embedded within it? There’s a truck campaign on the air now that is based on the placement of figures embodying one truck trait, like “smooth,” with a place that embodies another, like “rough.” (Here’s one example.) Perhaps this is one reason why Lull seemingly disapproved of the use of powerful mnemonic images, preferring memorization and contemplation of symbols: images are very, very powerful, but easily misused and misunderstood.

To return to TWC. Tevis is very good on Janus-faced travel. “Travelling Alone,” a very short piece, captures the time-murdering that happens in airports every day (I’m especially interested in this, having written a story some time ago setting a man’s personal purgatory in the Phoenix airport), but also the magic of air travel, the strange mixture of non-being and deification to be experienced in an airplane: “The moon burns cold behind my ear.” A couple of stories later, in “Everything but Your Wits,” revisits memories of past travel destinations, each marked as a “Gate/Platform.” There’s a gorgeous memory of growing up in South Carolina, cleaning up a movie theater after closing and watching a passenger train roll through town: “I wondered about the people on the train, where they were going, if they felt the excitement I did, whether any of them looked out their windows at the town, my town, that must have looked nondescript, to them.” This might seem pedestrian or boring to some readers, but if you grow up in a small town — mine was in Nebraska — you know the complicated texture of memory and emotion evoked by the sound of a night train rolling through town: its loneliness, its wanderlust, its nostalgia, and its promise. It is all a matter of perspective: likely none of those passengers have the memories to unlock the beauty and importance of that small town, likely a young girl in that small town does not have the experiences to know the feeling of being in transit, at the mercy of a train’s speed. But she will, we’ve already learned: she will. We are reading her own art of memory in this book.

Teeth and the Man I Sing

April 23, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Sharp Teeth.

One last, short note on this.  I didn’t think about it much until I finished it — maybe I have allusion-fatigue after Welty — but the arc of this book’s plot does have some interesting parallels to the ancient epics, and especially the Aeneid.  It’s there explicitly in the first line, “Let’s sing about the man there…”

You have Lark losing his pack, wandering and finding comfort with a kind woman, then founding a new pack and going to war.  There are bits of Aeneas and bits of Odysseus here.  There’s maybe a sly reversal of the Circe myth in the story of Bonnie and Lark, in that unlike Circe changing Odysseus’s crew into wild beasts, Lark changes from dog to man under her nose, as she sleeps the sleep of the drugged.  Bonnie seems to kind of be Dido and Circe and Calypso and Penelope, at various times.

There’s also Venable’s great soliloquy in the third book (p. 175), on the violence to the earth done by the sprawling L.A. megalopolis.  The taming of the Italian wilderness, and the violence of that civilizing, is a theme that runs through the Aeneid, as well.

It’s all fairly subtle, and restrained.  Does seem to be there, though.

The Market-Ready Free Verse Novel

April 22, 2008 § 3 Comments

Just finished: Sharp Teeth.

Reading next: The Wet Collection, by Joni Tevis.

One of my favorite comedians, Bill Hicks, had this incredible bit in which he suggested that anyone working for an advertising or marketing firm should just go ahead and kill him- or herself, and then speculates on marketers’ reaction to his “going after the anti-marketing market.” Hicks was about a decade and a half ahead of his time and was funny as hell, with or without a mullet.

I bring this up because, much as I try to avoid delving into authors’ bios (and yet I’ve done it twice since I started doing this, what a hypocrite!), I can’t help but notice that Toby Barlow works in advertising. More than that: “Toby Barlow is executive creative director at the advertising agency JWT…” It’s right on the back of the book. The man’s no drone; he’s a big shot. (JWT used to be known as J. Walter Thompson until they “relaunched their brand” a few years ago — a la “KFC,” I suppose — and, in my ongoing quest to Fully Disclose, I suppose I should say that my employer holds the archives of this agency. All views only my own etc. etc. You know the drill.)

Okay, so actual (very prominently displayed) copy from the JWT website: “At JWT we believe advertising needs to stop interrupting what people are interested in and be what people are interested in.”

Ahem.

Advertising does play a small but significant role in Sharp Teeth: there’s a campaign orchestrated by the rogue wolf Baron and his friends in the industry to stop the execution of strays and plaster L.A. with celebrity-endorsed ads to take in a stray dog. It’s a strategy to infiltrate homes with werewolves planted in the shelters, gradually taking over the city for the wolves, and it works for a while; then the reprieve is lifted, the campaign ends, the adopted remain adopted, waiting for a signal to strike that might never come. So Barlow doesn’t shy away from the dark side (or at least the darkly humorous side) of his day job, it would seem.

What we have here, then, is the work of a nighttime novelist. There’s plenty of precedent here; I mean, DeLillo and plenty of others wrote ad copy, too. Kudos to Toby Barlow for juggling work and more personal work. The book is remarkably devoid, in this day and age, of brand names; no complaints there.

It’s tempting to see a self-allegory in this tale of white-collar workers transforming into vicious dogs and wolves at will, but the book seems to resist that: one of the best things about this book is its playing with the werewolf trope without simply exploiting the wolf-man dichotomy. They’re doggish-wolfish-mannish beings, in this book, their desires and motives and appetites all jumbled up. It’s clever that there are white-collar wolves in law and advertising, but it doesn’t seem to be more than a slight joke, a touch of surrealism, and a Zevon homage.

Now, I’m an old fogey when it comes to advertising. (I don’t think advertising firms even like to call themselves advertising firms anymore; it’s all branding and promotion and such.) I like ads to be ads, the better to ignore them. I hate it when songs I love get plopped into commercials. Hearing about viral marketing campaigns and product placement (even — hell, especially — ironic product placement) and branding strategies is nails-on-a-chalkboard stuff for me. (I hate that I know the terms, actually, but what can you do?) So it bothers me that the book is in free verse which often seems just like prose. It seems like marketing, which is apparently something Gavin Grant, Elizabeth Hand, and others have also indicated.

The book’s a novella, really, if it’s on the page as prose: 150 pages, tops, probably less.

No one buys a novella. No one reviews a novella. No one sells a novella, much less a first novella.

Then there’s the climax. Don’t worry, I won’t give anything away; let’s just say that the presence of a Blackhawk helicopter and government snipers made it seem an awful lot like a glorified film treatment.

I’m bothered by this book, because I liked parts of it an awful lot. The parts where nothing important is happening are great: people falling in love, keeping secrets, going to work, feeding dogs, playing bridge, hanging out at the beach, telling tales. There are some lovely passages in here, and some really great action-packed prose that does flow as fluidly and naturally as poetry.

And yet it bothers me that the book has this gimmicky no-dust-jacket design (which does, I suppose, help the book stand out on a shelf, but it’s impossible to keep the glossy labels on the covers in decent shape), and that there are blurbs all over the front and back endpapers. I know, I know: you’ve got to sell books to keep publishing more books, I know that even the most lily-white work of art needs a patron. And yet it bothers me, like graffiti ad campaigns bother me, and Clash songs showing up in commercials bothers me.

(I promise to be less cranky with the next contemporary book I read.)

The Cathedral of Memory

April 21, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Art of Memory.

This is a dense, dense book.  We’re talking analysis of how the rules for the ancient “art of memory,” applied explicitly for students of rhetoric, gradually evolved in the middle ages into a similar set of rules appearing in scholastic summae as part of the Christian virtue of prudence (remembering virtues and vices in order to prudently avoid eternal hellfire, goes the basic logic).  But things are getting really interesting as Yates ties the art into its potential to unlock some of the mysteries of late medieval and Renaissance art and iconography.  Why are there all those grotesque allegorical figures and personifications of various sins or virtues in the art of this time?  Why are there rows of figures bordering scenes, why such a strange emphasis on kabuki-like gesture and fetishistic rendering of saints’ symbols?  It all jibes eerily well with the rules for the art of memory, which emphasizes the creation of memorable images, and especially human forms, the more grotesque or remarkable the better, in striking poses to aid mnemonic recovery of the figures’ messages.

Anyway, this somewhat fanciful suggestion, specifically, was a total payoff for me:

The high Gothic cathedral, so E. Panofsky has suggested, resembles a scholastic summa in being arranged according to ‘a system of homologous parts and parts of parts.’  The extraordinary thought now arises that if Thomas Aquinas memorised his own Summa through ‘corporeal similitudes’ disposed on places following the order of its parts, the abstract Summa might be corporealised in memory into something like a Gothic cathedral full of images on its ordered places.

On the one hand, it’s somewhat obvious that medieval art and, specifically, the stained glass windows of a Gothic cathedral, were intended to impart moral lessons and to impress on the memories of their viewers concern for their eternal souls.  On the other hand, it is an amazing to me to think of ideal, glorious, vibrant cathedrals of the mind (of Thomas Aquinas’s mind), with row upon row of stained glass windows depicting all of the virtues, all of the vices, their various epitomes in saints and sinners, their various reminders and lessons and reasons for being.  And dividing these windows, columns carved with allegorical figures identifying each section of the hierarchical medieval scholastic system of knowledge; and on the walls at the front and back of the cathedral, giant scenes of heaven and hell, the reasons for all of this knowledge to exist; the floor, the ceiling, the architecture itself holding meaning.  The artist of memory creating his cathedral, choosing the lighting, building stone by stone the system which will remind constantly of the moral structure of the world, to be recalled for a sermon, a homily, a devotion.

Yates does mention that the art is encouraged in the 14th century and forward as a devotional exercise, which certainly seems more logical to our modern brains, which can’t fathom the practicality of attempting to store so much knowledge in the brain.  This is leading to the hermetic, humanistic, and mystical uses to which the art will be put in the Renaissance.  Things are going to get really interesting.

The Freedom of Constraint

April 19, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Sharp Teeth.

There was a terrific, seemingly out-of-the blue post on Slate this week by Robert Pinsky, a kind of manifesto on the laziness of complaints on contemporary poetry. I enjoyed it, and his second point was especially appropriate for my current reading. He gives a couple of excellent examples of free-verse poetry.

I am beginning to realize that Sharp Teeth does not belong in this company. I am beginning to wonder if its free verse really is “just prose chopped into lines.”

There are any number of examples I could give. Here’s just one:

They exited the freeway and pulled

into a neighborhood

just east of Huntington Park.

Ray slung the van up a drive and shut off the engine.

He pointed to Frio and Penn and said,

“After you change, hit the back of the house,

and be ready to rush.”

(Sorry, too dense to figure out single spacing right now.)

You see anything poetic there? Anything requiring line breaks besides the clauses of each sentence? Any careful wordplay, alliteration, internal rhyme? I don’t. It’s utilitarian prose. There are some nice flights of fancy in this book, but nothing that couldn’t be contained in prose. Some nice metaphors, turns of phrase, digressions.

I’m having a lot of fun with this book, don’t get me wrong. But what annoys me is that I really could have loved a book that actually was a rigorous piece of poetry about packs of werewolves in L.A. Because there’s a nice tension there, see? The constraint of writing within the urbane, civilized, even antiquated constraints of metric, even rhymed verse could have made an ingenious counterpoint to this book so much about the human and the animal within the human which we all live with. I could even have gone for sections of verse broken up with sections of prose, Shakespeare-style. I’m afraid Barlow wanted this kind of effect, but was either too lazy or too scared to go whole hog. Instead he just broke his sentences up into lines. Too bad, really.

I’m one of those people that thinks what we need in literature (insofar as “we” need anything, overall) is more constraint. I’m an OuLiPo fan, in other words. I adore books written without the use of the letter e. I admire fantastically elaborate linguistic or structural puzzles embedded in novels. I love poetry marrying  torturous demands to gorgeous language.

Shakespeare’s the summit of literature for a reason, right? I mean, mostly because he was a genius, and would have been a genius whenever he lived. But partly, I insist, it’s because he lived at a time that demanded that he place constraints on his passions; that he write his dialogue in iambic pentameter, that he create words to fit that meter, that he structure couplets to end his scenes, that he conform to the rigors of the sonnet and only occasionally take liberties. Shakespeare’s great lines, soliloquies, and speeches would simply not be were it not for his operating within these structures. This is the genius of the OuLiPans. It’s only when we limit the set that things get interesting; structureless freedom in art leads to a multiplicity of tempting, horrible choices (see Art Scene, Contemporary American).

Lawyers, Wolves, and Bridge

April 16, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Sharp Teeth, by Toby Barlow.

This is the werewolves-in-L.A. novel, written in verse, that I mentioned a while back.  My favorite subplot so far involves two of the werewolves in a pack led by a cutthroat lawyer named Lark.  The wolves are sometimes like dogs, sometimes wolves, sometimes human; Barlow’s not your typical genre writer in that he’s fairly disinterested in the specific mechanics of such things.  Anyway, Lark teaches them all bridge, trying to sniff out a player who seems to have an interest in dogfights.  The two wolves who seem to have a talent for the game get sent to a tournament in Pasadena, playing little old ladies and such.  Great conceit, there.

If this isn’t a novel inspired by Warren Zevon songs, I don’t know what is.

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