Jun 29 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 08: Comedy and Calamity

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Midwest Mod Squad no. 08: Comedy and Calamity

I.

What is my method for reviewing short fiction in this series? Basically, I’m just comparing things I’ve recently read (or reread) to the texts and topics at hand. I read quite randomly, so the comparisons and contrasts I make follow my reading habits. But as the great anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1904–1980) once put it: “Without the random, there can be no new thing.” [1]

What do I mean by the “essence of a story” (besides this and this)? I mean when the reader of a story asks (or determines) at what point do the most essential components of that story intersect. This is the essence. For in that hub––“aye––there’s the rub….”

II.

The essence of “Racquetball,” a very short story by Don Waitt[2] of Tampa, Florida, told by a never-named narrator in the first-person perspective, may simply be the death of the father in the backstory. This single, simple incident (occurring in some nameless America locus) reminded me somewhat of the essence of Paul Yoon’s 2016 short story “Vladivostok Station,” where the essence occurs immediately in the opening line as the narrator reunites with his friend Kostya, and everything that follows in the story is a result of this temporary reunion.[3]

As Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837) once put it: “precision and brevity—these are the two virtues of prose.”[4] And, under that Russian rubric, Waitt’s story is certainly virtuous in terms of length and exactness; but, considering the length of Yoon’s narrative, I find the latter to be a bit underwhelming. To complicate matters, James Gallant’s short story “The Adjunct” (discussed below in part III. of this review) mocks the concept of “flash fiction” but not so literally that it ends up being a “long” short story.

The dad in “Racquetball” died from an ambush with a heart attack while playing ball; the narrator of “Vladivostok Station,” however, is concerned with his ambush (or intersection) with an old acquaintance. Both deal with interruptions: via death for one and friendship for the other. For both stories, I am reminded of a line from a recent novel by Stephen King when the alcoholic protagonist realizes: “he had come to believe that life was a series of ironic ambushes.”[5]

“Racquetball” deals with a dead dad who, in terms of the narrator’s memory, is still somewhat part of the narrator’s community. And this reminded me of a passage from Alfarabi (872–950 CE) on how the dead nonetheless remain a part of a living community:

“City” and “household” do not mean merely the dwelling for the Ancients. But they do mean those whom the dwelling surrounds, whatever the dwellings, of whatever thing they are, and whether they are beneath the earth or above it—being wood, clay, wool and hair, or any of the other things of which the dwellings that surround people are made. [6]

Or as sociologist Thomas Laqueur has most recently put it:

It is still common; there are cultures today in which the living regularly speak to the dead. We endlessly invest the dead body with meaning because, through it, the human past somehow speaks to us. [7]

In other words, everything above and below and surrounding a living individual should be consider a part of the individual’s community, both the living and the dead. And in “Racquetball” the death of the dad still lingers––as when the narrator-son has to make an annoying trip to the airport to pick up his dead dad’s wallet. Whether the sports projectile that ended his life was launched with violent intent or was merely accidental, I recall the sentiments from Dune: “There is no escape—we pay for the violence of our ancestors.”[8]

In ‘Racquetball,” this idea of the dead still being a part of a living community is made apparent to readers through the storyline of the narrator’s mother becoming emotionally apoplectic from the horror/grief of her husband dying in the prime of life at age forty-eight. As Seneca once put it: “Nothing makes itself more unpopular quite so quickly as a person’s grief,” which is why the narrator of “Racquetball” has given up on overly comforting his widowed mother, though he hates himself for doing so.[9]

III.

The essence of “The Adjunct” by James Gallant[10] (who has written books about Atlanta and Ohio) seems to occur when the main character Aurora Magnusson decides to start a literary magazine at a college in the Ozarks, a college that hasn’t quite decided to hire her, that is, until she pitches her plans for a publication with the college’s name in the title. While her scheme turns out (at least temporarily) to be self-sustaining, it also appears to be something of a racket of the humanities. For in this story would-be writers pay “entry fees” to have their work published, and Magnusson, meanwhile, pockets the fees without disclosing this revenue stream to her college employers.

Gallant’s story (told in the third-person perspective limited to Aurora’s point of view) seems to silently mock grad-student lingo, particularly phrases like “self-sustaining” and “job security,” which aren’t even mentioned in the story proper but seem apparent (at least to this reader).

Magnusson’s self-sustaining scam to publish a literary magazine is divorced from any ideals of quality in the literature it publishes, as evidenced in her speculation as to how she will operate the publication: “The editing probably wouldn’t take that long once the magazine was up and running.”

It’s also not even clear if Aurora Magnusson wants to be a full-time professor, much less an adjunct one. She is (like a good middleclass American) only interested in paying her bills (particularly her rent). In a grander sense, she seems to be going through the motions in order to maintain the appearances of having graduating from graduate school.

IV.

For both narrators of these stories, there is a kind of defiant smiling in the face of utter hopelessness, which isn’t (I think) quite the same as whistling in the dark through a graveyard. Magnusson certainly gains power over the writers whom she now edits; but it remains unclear what power (if any) she wields over her readers. The narrator in “Racquetball,” meanwhile, seems similar to the powerless tenant farmers described in Georgian writer Harry Crew’s (1935–2012) memoirs:

They spoke for a while about the weather, mostly rain, and about other things that men who live off the land speak of when they meet, seriously, but with that resigned tone in their voice that makes you know they know they’re speaking only to pass the time because they have utterly no control over what they’re talking about: weevils in cotton, screwworms in stock, the government allotment of tobacco acreage, the fierce price of commercial fertilizer. [11]

Both Waitt and Gallant’s stories deal with kinds of powerlessness: “Racquetball” about death; “The Adjunct” about job drought, that is, a writing/teaching career thwarted by economic desperation. Both stories remind me of a remark by social philosopher Eric Hoffer (1902–1983): “The powerful can be as timid as the weak. What seems to count more than possession of instruments of power is faith in the future.”[12]

And both stories might be about what Crews once realized: “The only way to deal with the real world was to challenge it with one of your own making.”[13] In “Racquetball” the narrator has to make his own life better by ignoring the undue, continuous grief of his mother. In “The Adjunct” the main character Magnusson literally creates a literary enterprise to “deal with the real world.”

Both stories are by “expert” readers, that is, “established” writers. They know what they’re doing whatever the reader knows, agree with or not. And this brings me back to Pushkin:

In a draft letter to Ryleev of June–August 1825 Pushkin contrasts Western writers who all wrote for money with the situation of poets in Russia where ‘(except for me) they write from vanity … There if you have nothing to eat, you write a book; here if you have nothing to eat you enter government service and dont write.’ [14]

Finally, it needs to be pointed out that both stories are very funny. But when one analyzes humor, she or he too often ends up like those who stare at the countenance of Medusa: silently frozen in perplexity.

NOTES

wood

[1] Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979) 147.

[2] Don Waitt, “Racquetball,” NewPopReview.com.

[3] Paul Yoon, “Vladivostok Station,” Harpers, July 2016.

[4] Elaine Feinstein, Pushkin: a Biography, (Ecco Press/Harper Collins, 2000) 80.

[5] Stephen King, Doctor Sleep, (New York: Scribner, 2013) 64.

[6] Alfarabi, The Political Writings, trans. Charles E. Butterworth. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2004), “Selected Aphorisms” p. 22, no. 22.

[7] Thomas W. Laqueur, The Work of the Dead: a Cultural History of Mortal Remains, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2015) 6.

[8] Frank Herbert, Dune (1965), (New York: Ace Books – Premium Edition, 2010) “I. Dune,” 237 (from “Collected Sayings of Muad’Dib” by the Princess Irulan).

[9] Seneca, Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (Letters from a Stoic), trans. Robin Campbell, (New York: Penguin, 1969) Letter LXIII, p. 116.

[10] James Gallant, “The Adjunct,” Fortnightly Review, May 28, 2018.

[11] Harry Crews, A Childhood: the Biography of a Place, (New York: Harper and Row, 1978) 16–17.

[12] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) §4, p. 18.

[13] Crews, A Childhood: the Biography of a Place 126.

[14] Feinstein, Pushkin: a Biography 125.


Apr 13 2018

Hosting the Italians: Part I of III

Mortadella in Bologna, Italia

Hosting the Italians: Part I of III

It’s been two years since Scott and I traveled to Italy to meet Cosimo and Chiara, and now, they were coming to meet us in Austin. We expected them to arrive sometime Saturday, March 10, 2018. So that afternoon I went over to Scott’s house in Pflugerville. We were a little anxious and a lot excited: anxious because we’d been so well-hosted in Bologna and Rome that we felt obligated to return the generosity; excited because we were enjoying good springtime weather and we’d taken off from work for the next several days. In other words, this would be a vacation for both of us, but one with responsibilities.

Cosimo and Chiara flew directly from Rome to Los Angeles. They said it took about fifteen hours. For a couple of days they toured L.A. and Vegas, then began working their way east from the Grand Canyon through New Mexico and eventually to Amarillo. There they saw the Cadillac Ranch (I think) and ate slabs of steak from the world-famous Big Texan Steak Ranch restaurant.

They texted us once they left Amarillo on their journey to Austin. But by that time the weariness of road travel had become burdensome. For not only did Cosimo and Chiara have (quite expected) jetlag from Italy to California, but as they began their trek across the Great American West, they had forgotten to account for the time zone changes occurring across the continent. In addition, they were unaware that that particular Saturday night was the Day Light Savings change-over. Talk about a triple-whammy.

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As Saturday afternoon turned into evening, Scott and I decided to watch The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), which is an Italian-made film starring American actors and shot in rural Spain. Before we knew it, we were approaching the end of this three-hour flick but were still awaiting the arrival of our guests. I told Scott that I expected “time had caught up with them,” and just before I left to go home for the evening, we received a text message saying they had driven from Amarillo to Brownwood but were going to stay there for the night. Having traveled half-way across the continent, followed by driving half-way across Texas––and all in the last 48 hours––we were not surprised.

 

So the next day we met them at Baby Acapulco’s in Pflugerville for a Tex-Mex lunch, one that lasted a few hours as we all conversed and caught up together. Scott’s friend Ciera also came and met everyone. Then we all went to Scott’s and helped them unpack and unwind.

That evening Scott said something to our guests like: “There’s lots of good food and restaurants here I want to show you, but there’s also good fast food,” so we went and picked up fried chicken from Raising Cain’s.

Later that night we went downtown to the intersection of Fifth St. and Congress Ave. where at the Ethics Lounge was an electronic music show, an event that was part of kicking off the South by Southwest 2018 music festival. Here we saw DJ-producers 6Blocc of Los Angeles and Von D of France, both of whom Scott and Cosimo were familiar with. Other than the elevator at the club not working, it was a great night.

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(Cosimo, Scott, Von D, and our friend Adam B)

Bologna is considered the food capital of Italy, and when we were their guests, Cosimo and Chiara treated Scott and me to some of the best food to be found in both Bologna and Rome. We therefore wanted them to try some of the best in Texas cuisine. Part of that meant taking them, along with Ciera, and my extended family David and Dyhana Landrum, to Storm’s Drive-in Restaurant in Lampasas, my hometown. A place with food so good that, back in the 1950’s, Elvis used to frequent it when he was an army draftee stationed at nearby Fort Hood. Today it remains just as much a culinary pilgrimage as it was back then for the King.

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(Dyhana, Chiara, Scott, David, Cosimo at Storm’s)

After lunch we went to the Landrum family farm, now called Finca de la Luna, where under sunny skies we inspected the vineyard, played with the dogs, drank some wine and Topo Chico mineral water, and listened to guineas meep and beep in the farmyard. At one point some homemade wine was brought out. It was negroamaro, a couple of years old. Cosimo was quite impressed. For though he is not a heavy wine drinker, he really enjoyed his glass, said it reminded him of Salento, his hometown in southern Italy—in the region where negroamaro originates. It was as if our two hometowns were united with this wine, for recalling this memory and writing about it now reminds me of a passage by the Southern writer Harry Crews (1935–2012):

I come from people who believe the home place is as vital and necessary as the beating of your own heart. It is that single house where you were born, where you lived out your childhood, where you grew into young manhood. It is your anchor in the world, that place, along with the memory of your kinsmen at the long supper table every night and the knowledge that it would always exist, if nowhere but in memory.
(A Childhood: the Biography of a Place, (New York: Harper & Row, 1978) 13–14.)

At some point later in the evening we were discussing burlesque dancing while Cosimo played piano. Despite everyone keeping their clothes on, it was still a fun night.

(At Finca de la Luna)

On the way back to Austin, Cosimo played a CD my father had given him of his punk rock band, Skull Shaker. The album had just been released during the South by Southwest music festival. Scott said they listened to it several times, so I assume they enjoyed it (we were in separate cars).

The next day I had to return to work, so what follows was told to me, though I did not experience it: that is, on Tuesday, March 13 Scott took Cosimo and Chiara to Lockhart. Scott’s mother Corally as well as David and Dyhana, also came along. After driving for about an hour south of Austin they arrived at the house of Scott’s grandmother. Scott’s grandmother, a.k.a. “Mom-maw” Ridge, proceeded to give everyone a short lesson on the history of Texas. Afterwards everyone ate lunch at Smitty’s Market, considered one of the best barbeque joints in Texas (and the world for that matter). They ate brisket, sausage, and pork chops, with Big Red soda to wash it down.

That afternoon they went to visit Scott’s uncle, who has a nearby ranch. There they explored the land on ATVs. Upon returning to Austin, they stopped by Whole Foods and grabbed a bunch of things to prepare a meal at home. After five hours of preparation and cooking, everyone was treated to some authentic Bolognese style pasta with sauce, a soufflé, and cauliflower cheese casserole. It was a terrific meal, but one that could not eaten and enjoyed until about 1:30 in the morning.

(Read Part II here.)

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(Big Red at Smitty’s Market, Lockhart, Texas)


Dec 15 2017

How to Lose Friends & Influence Over People: Write about Race (Part III of III)

porticos in Bologna, Italia

How to Lose Friends & Influence Over People:
Write about Race (Part III of III)

Toward Some Solutions to the Political Problem of Writing about Race while Being Aware of One’s Own Race

Part III.

In Part I, I brought up the four questions of Al-farabi (872–950 AD) to ask for any political situation: What, How, What from, What for? And in Part II, I applied those questions to four recent articles discussing and/or involving the problem of writing about race. If Al-farabi’s fourth question, What for?, were properly applied, it would seek to find the end and final purpose for why each writer wrote what they did. “The real question in this debate,” answers Jess Row, “couldn’t be more fundamental: What are novels for, and what are novelists for?” Row insists that writers (particularly white fiction writers) write in ways and on topics that are politically relevant, because the denial that one’s art is politically relevant exposes the ignorance of the artist’s privileged place in culture, an ignorance that further represses others from partaking in that privilege.

Wesley Yang says the reason for writing about race is because: “Part of responding to the coalition of white resentment from which the [alt-right] posters emerged in ways that stanches rather than feeds its growth, then, means taking stock of the way our own thinking has been affected by polarizing memes.”

Aaron Mak wrote about race because he wants to solidify “the cooperation necessary between people of color to overcome systemic racism” without “contorting” one’s “identity” to new bureaucratic systems that establish new categories of racism. For as the Freedom Rider founder James Farmer (1920–1999) once pointed out, racism is inevitably bureaucratic. [1]

Andy Ngo wrote about race because “The lack of any ideological counterpoise has created a vacuum where ideas have no mechanism or incentive for moderation.” For Ngo, such a vacuum needs to be (ideally) eliminated, but at the very least, penetrated by asking hard questions (such as asking When is racism disguised as antiracism?). These hard questions penetrate because they modulate the discussion rather than amplify its intensity.

I have no original ideas to add to their proposed solutions. I can only thumb through my notes, find some seemingly relevant quotations—some sidelights that might shine toward some solutions to the political problem of writing about race and being aware of one’s own race while writing:

For Susan Sontag (1933–2004), translation helps the writer understand the race that the writer is not:

Literary translation, I think, is preeminently an ethical task, and one that mirrors and duplicates the role of literature itself, which is to extend our sympathies; to educate the heart and mind; to create inwardness; to secure and deepen the awareness (with all its consequences) that other people, people different from us, really do exist. [2]

For Wendell Berry (1934–), imagination helps the writer understand the race that the writer is not:

By imagination I do not mean the ability to make things up or to make a realistic copy. I mean the ability to make real to oneself the life of one’s place or the life of an enemy—and therein, I believe, is implied, imagination in the highest sense.[3]

For Harry Crews (1935–2012), creativity (artifice) helps the writer understand the race that the writer is not:

The only way to deal with the real world was [and is] to challenge it with one of your own making.[4]

NOTES

wood

[1] In Farmer’s words:

Curiously, by a quirk of New York state laws, my first daughter’s birth certificate lists her as a Negro and the same one is classified as white. When Tami was born, a child of mixed marriage was Negro, and when Abbey was born, a child took its race from the mother. (Lay Bare the Heart: an Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement, (Fort Worth, TX: Texas Christian University Press, 1985) 214)

[2] Sontag, At the Same Time, edited by Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump. (New York, NY: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007) “The Word of India” 177. Yet, as Benedict Anderson (1936–2015) once observed:

Proverbially, a writer loses his/her book at the moment that it is published and enters the public sphere. But to feel the full melancholy force of the adage, there is nothing like facing a translation of a book into a language the author does not understand. (Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, (London: Verso, 1983), (Revised edition 2006) 228)

[3] Berry, “American Imagination and the Civil War,” The Sewanee Review, 115 (Fall 2007): 587–602 at 596–97.

[4] Harry Crews, A Childhood: the Biography of a Place, (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1978) 126.