“Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby” by Donald Barthelme
Some of us had been threatening our friend Colby for a long time, because of the way he had been behaving. And now he’d gone too far, so we decided to hang him. Colby argued that just because he had gone too far (he did not deny that he had gone too far) did not mean that he should be subjected to hanging. Going too far, he said, was something everybody did sometimes. We didn’t pay much attention to this argument. We asked him what sort of music he would like played at the hanging. He said he’d think about it but it would take him a while to decide. I pointed out that we’d have to know soon, because Howard, who is a conductor, would have to hire and rehearse the musicians and he couldn’t begin until he knew what the music was going to be. Colby said he’d always been fond of Ives’s Fourth Symphony. Howard said that this was a “delaying tactic” and that everybody knew that the Ives was almost impossible to perform and would involve weeks of rehearsal, and that the size of the orchestra and chorus would put us way over the music budget. “Be reasonable,” he said to Colby. Colby said he’d try to think of something a little less exacting.
Hugh was worried about the wording of the invitations. What if one of them fell into the hands of the authorities? Hanging Colby was doubtless against the law, and if the authorities learned in advance what the plan was they would very likely come in and try to mess everything up. I said that although hanging Colby was almost certainly against the law, we had a perfect moralright to do so because he was our friend, belonged to us in various important senses, and he had after all gone too far. We agreed that the invitations would be worded in such a way that the person invited could not know for sure what he was being invited to. We decided to refer to the event as “An Event Involving Mr. Colby Williams.” A handsome script was selected from a catalogue and we picked a cream-colored paper. Magnus said he’d see to having the invitations printed, and wondered whether we should serve drinks. Colby said he thought drinks would be nice but was worried about the expense. We told him kindly that the expense didn’t matter, that we were after all his dear friends and if a group of his dear friends couldn’t get together and do the thing with a little bit of eclat, why, what was the world coming to? Colbv asked if he would be able to have drinks, too, before the event. We said,”Certainly.”
The next item of business was the gibbet. None of us knew too much about gibbet design, but Tomas, who is an architect, said he’d look it up in old books and draw the plans. The important thing, as far as he recollected, was that the trapdoor function perfectly. He said that just roughly, counting labor and materials, it shouldn’t run us more than four hundred dollars. “Good God !” Howard said. He said what was Tomas figuring on, rosewood? No, just a good grade of pine, Tomas said. Victor asked if unpainted pine wouldn’t look kind of “raw,” and Tomas replied that he thought it could be stained a dark walnut without too much trouble.
“Physical books should be sublime, digital books should be free” |Haute Culture Publisher Luis de Miranda Interviewed
Biblioklept: What is Haute Culture Press?
Luis de Miranda: Haute Culture is a new venture in luxury publishing with a mission to bring masterpieces of global literature to English-speaking readers around the world. Since your site is called “Biblioklept,” I’ll start by saying that we are a new kind of Robin Hood: we give to both the “poor” and the “rich.” We offer free e-books to the modern global reader interested in discovering hidden gems of classic European literature and, simultaneously, we offer individuals of greater means the opportunity to become mini-Medici’s, actively supporting culture while enjoying a luxurious limited edition book that will increase in value year after year.
This model is summed up in our slogan: Physical books should be sublime, digital books should be free. The sales of our limited luxury editions—each a distinctive art object—support the distribution of free e-books for each of our titles. Buyers of our limited editions, in effect, become benefactors—or “Book Angels,” as we call them. I believe this model will satisfy collectors and book lovers.
Furthermore, as e-books become cheaper and cheaper, I want to create a model that does not depend on the diminishing revenues of e-book sales and allows us to reach as many readers as possible, particularly younger readers. If we want younger generations to read quality literature, and not just the latest bestsellers, free e-books are the way to go.
Biblioklept: Is the possible disconnect between electronic books and “luxury” an issue? Does this new publishing model privilege the book as an aesthetic object?
LdM: This model privileges the free distribution of quality literature and it reinvents the physical book as a cult object. I aim to create unique objects that make the poetry of texts tangible. As we all spend more time in front of screens, I believe that the experiential aspect of the printed book will become more important, with readers looking for a higher quality object. I foresee the return of the “gentleman’s library” (or “gentlewoman’s library”), with fine leather volumes and limited editions—the polar opposite of e-books. Our limited editions will embody my great respect for the ritual of reading and for the craftsmanship of book making, while at the same time subsidizing the free distribution of our e-books and building a new global audience for iconic European literary masters.
Biblioklept: Is Haute Culture the first group to employ this model, to your knowledge?
LdM: Yes. We are innovating and experimenting. I don’t know if ours will be an economically viable model in the end, but it is definitely a desirable one. Since we are exploring uncharted territory, we have to take things step by step. We are avoiding the established highways over artificial ponds, and attempting to build our own bridge. We might fail or we might create a new path that the others will soon follow.
Biblioklept: Why did you choose A.H. Tammsaare’s Truth and Justice as the first book in this series?
LdM: Our first publication is actually a new translation and an ultra-limited bilingual edition of the Flaubert novella, Felicity: The Tale of the Simple Heart. In December 2013, it will be on sale at Assouline Boutiques in New York, Los Angeles, London, and Paris.
Volume I of Tammsaare’s Truth and Justice is planned for publication in 2014. It is a fine example of an untranslated classic. Tammsaare himself is an icon of 20th century Estonian literature. Two museums, a monument, and a park in the center of Tallinn are all dedicated to him. Unlike some traditional classics, which are widely referred to but rarely read, his masterpiece, Truth and Justice, still retains its place at the front of Estonian bookshelves and yet this epic work has never been translated into English. I also have some personal reasons for launching the press with an Estonian icon like Tammsaare. I wrote my last novel in Estonia three years ago and I wanted to pay homage to the land that inspired me.
Biblioklept: What is Tammasaare’s book about? Why is it important?
LdM: Truth and Justice is considered Tammsaare’s most important work. It was written during the rise of dictators—Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini—and it captures the evolution of Estonia from Tsarist province to independent state. Though it’s deeply rooted in Estonian peasant life, the first volume deals with timeless literary and philosophical issues, developing a vigorous, straightforward narrative that addresses the dual nature of the human psyche.
The book’s characters, storylines, and language continue to inform Estonia’s culture today. References to Truth and Justice are pervasive, and one hears its echoes in contemporary Estonian literature, as well as other art forms. One need only call two men “Andres and Pearu” for any Estonian to understand the nature of their relationship.
Volume I presents life in an Estonian village, as farmers battle against nature during the last quarter of the 19th century. The two main characters, both unique and powerful men, represent the essential conflicts of human nature: not only good vs. evil, but also hope vs. conservatism, conquest vs. pettiness. The saga explores how human impulses compete with each other and complete the characters.
Although the first volume seems entirely dedicated to peasant life in rural Estonia at the threshold of modernity, the book deals with fundamental issues that are quite relevant today. You might say this book reflects what we are trying to do at Haute Culture. Truth and Justice is a story of simple people who work the land endlessly, striving to build a world were truth and justice prevail, where good is fostered and protected, not killed by conformity or lack of courage. Beautiful things grow slowly like plants. Perhaps this is a lesson for all the capitalists of the world.
Biblioklept: What future plans do you have for Haute Culture? What other books would you like to publish?
LdM: We are currently translating a Russian book by the cult novelist Yuri Mamleyev, called Shatuny. We are working with one of the best Russian to English translators, Marian Schwartz, who translated Bulgakov and Berberova. Shatuny is a mind-blowing, hallucinatory story about the quest for absolute truth. Maybe we are obsessed by truth?
Bringing untranslated texts to English readers around the world is one aspect of a wider mission to bring singular, fine, original works to the global corpus. That has always been my goal—to democratize access to culture. I’ve been to the Frankfurt Book Fair many times and met with publishers and agents in New York. I’ve noticed not only that many great European works have not been translated to English, but also that the mainstream US and UK publishers tend to translate only genre bestsellers—thrillers for example.
English is now the international language and I believe it’s possible, and indeed essential to bring to the international psyche works that aren’t standardized and cliché, but truly represent a unique viewpoint. I plan to build a catalogue that only includes masterpieces. Publishers who rely on the old publishing model must often publish potential bestsellers they secretly despise, yet there are so many excellent contemporary classics waiting to be discovered and translated into English. With Haute Culture, I refuse to compromise. Literature has the potential to create a more diverse and interconnected world, but in order to reach that potential we must fight against a profit-driven culture.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
LdM: When I was 18, I had a summer job at a bookshop in the Pompidou Center in Paris. At the end of my first day, I took about 20 books home with me, feeling that I had found Ali Baba’s cave, but a few days later I felt guilty and replaced all the books on their shelves.
“The journal of a human heart for a single day in ordinary circumstances” and other ideas from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Note-Books
- A young man and girl meet together, each in search of a person to be known by some particular sign. They watch and wait a great while for that person to pass. At last some casual circumstance discloses that each is the one that the other is waiting for. Moral,–that what we need for our happiness is often close at hand, if we knew but how to seek for it.
- The journal of a human heart for a single day in ordinary circumstances. The lights and shadows that flit across it; its internal vicissitudes.
- Distrust to be thus exemplified: Various good and desirable things to be presented to a young man, and offered to his acceptance,–as a friend, a wife, a fortune; but he to refuse them all, suspecting that it is merely a delusion. Yet all to be real, and he to be told so, when too late.
- A man tries to be happy in love; he cannot sincerely give his heart, and the affair seems all a dream. In domestic life, the same; in politics, a seeming patriot; but still he is sincere, and all seems like a theatre.
- An old man, on a summer day, sits on a hill-top, or on the observatory of his house, and sees the sun’s light pass from one object to another connected with the events of his past life,–as the school-house, the place where his wife lived in her maidenhood,–its setting beams falling on the churchyard.
- An idle man’s pleasures and occupations and thoughts during a day spent by the seashore: among them, that of sitting on the top of a cliff, and throwing stones at his own shadow, far below.
- A blind man to set forth on a walk through ways unknown to him, and to trust to the guidance of anybody who will take the trouble; the different characters who would undertake it: some mischievous, some well-meaning, but incapable; perhaps one blind man undertakes to lead another. At last, possibly, he rejects all guidance, and blunders on by himself.
Notations from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s American Note-Books.
“BILL will you begin. By telling the court in your own words how you first conceived and then supported this chimera, the illusion of your potential greatness. By means of which you have managed to assume the leadership and retain it, despite tons of evidence of total incompetence, the most recent instance being your hurlment of two six-packs of Miller High Life, in a brown-paper bag, through the windscreen of a blue Volkswagen operated by I. Fondue and H. Maeght. Two utter and absolute strangers, so far as we know.” “Strangers to you perhaps. But not to me.” “Well strangers is not the immediate question. Will you respond to the immediate question. How did you first conceive and then sustain —” “The conception I have explained more or less. I wanted to make, of my life, a powerful statement etc. etc. How this wrinkle was first planted in my sensorium I know not. But I can tell you how it is sustained.” “How.” “I tell myself things.” “What.” “Bill you are the greatest. Bill you did that very nicely. Bill there is something about you. Bill you have style. Bill you are macho.” “But despite this blizzard of self-gratulation —” “A fear remained.” “A fear of?” “The black horse.” “Who is this black horse.” “I have not yet met it. It was described to me.” “By?” “Fondue and Maeght.” “Those two who were at the controls of the Volkswagen when you hurled the brown-paper bag.” “That is correct.” “You cherished then for these two, Fondue and Maeght, a hate.” “More of a miff, your worship.” “Of what standing, in the time dimension, is this miff?” “Matter of let’s see sixteen years I would say.” “The miff had its genesis in mentionment to you by them of the great black horse.” “That is correct.” “How old were you exactly. At that time.” “Twelve years.” “Something said to you about a horse sixteen years ago triggered, then, the hurlment.” “That is correct.” “Let us make sure we understand the circumstances of the hurlment. Can you disbosom yourself very briefly of the event as seen from your point of view.” “It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.” “What is your authority.” “The cathouse clock.” “Proceed.” “I was on my way from the coin-operated laundry to the Door Store.” “With what in view.” “I had in mind the purchasement of a slab of massif oak, 48” by 60”, and a set of carved Byzantine legs, for the construction of a cocktail table, to support cocktails.” “Could you rubric, scout-mysteries.” “No. It was in the nature of a threat, a punishment. I had infracted a rule.” “What rule?” “A rule of thumb having to do with pots. You were supposed to scour the pots with mud, to clean them. I used Ajax.” “That was a scoutmystery, how to scour a pot with mud?” “Indeed.” “The infraction was then, resistance to scoutmysteries?” “Stated in the most general terms, that would be it.” “And what was the response of Fondue and Maeght.” “They told me that there was a great black horse, and that it had in mind, eating me.” “They did?” “It would come by night, they said. I lay awake waiting.” “Did it present itself? The horse?” “No. But I awaited it. I await it still.” “One more question: is it true that you allowed the fires under the vats to go out, on the night of January sixteenth, while pursuing this private vendetta?” “It is true.” “Vatricide. That crime of crimes. Well it doesn’t look good for you, Bill. It doesn’t look at all good for you.”
From Donald Barthelme’s Snow White. One of the funniest passages I’ve read in ages.
IN THIS RIFF:
“The Subliminal Man” (1963)
1. Today is Black Friday in America. I don’t think it’s necessary to remark at length on the bizarre disjunction between this exercise in consumerism-as-culture and the intended spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday that precedes it. Indeed, I think that the cognitive dissonance that underwrites Black Friday—the compulsion to suffer (and cause suffering), both physically and mentally, to “save” money on “consumer goods” (sorry for all the scare quotes, but these terms are euphemisms and must be placed under suspicion)—I think that this cognitive dissonance is nakedly apparent to all who choose to (or are forced to) actively engage in Black Friday. The name itself is dark, ominous, wonderfully satanic.
2. Rereading “The Subliminal Man” for this project, I was struck by how presciently Ballard anticipated not only the contours of consumerist culture—urban sprawl, a debt-based economy, the mechanization of leisure, the illusion of freedom of choice—but also how closely he intuited the human, psychological responses to the consumerist society he saw on the horizon. On the fiftieth anniversary of its publication, “The Subliminal Man” seems more relevant than ever.
3. The premise of the tale is fairly straightforward and fits neatly with the schema of many other early Ballard stories: Franklin, an overworked doctor, is approached by Hathaway, a “crazy beatnik,” who refuses to take part in the non-stop consumerism of contemporary society. Hathaway can “see” the subliminal messages sent through advertising; these messages, and he asks for Franklin’s help in stopping the spread of these messages. Hathaway reasons that the messages are intended to enforce consumerist society:
Ultimately we’ll all be working and spending twenty–four hours a day, seven days a week. No one will dare refuse. Think what a slump would mean – millions of lay–offs, people with time on their hands and nothing to spend it on. Real leisure, not just time spent buying things . . .
The fear of a slump. You know the new economic dogmas. Unless output rises by a steady inflationary five per cent the economy is stagnating. Ten years ago increased efficiency alone would raise output, but the advantages there are minimal now and only one thing is left. More work. Subliminal advertising will provide the spur.
Franklin is unconvinced, even though he is already working Saturdays and Sunday mornings to payoff TVs, radios, and other electronic goods that he and his wife replace every few months. Soon, however, he realizes that something is wrong:
He began his inventory after hearing the newscast, and discovered that in the previous fortnight he and Judith had traded in their Car (previous model 2 months old) 2 TV sets (4 months) Power mower (7 months) Electric cooker (5 months) Hair dryer (4 months) Refrigerator (3 months) 2 radios (7 months) Record player (5 months) Cocktail bar (8 months)
Franklin finally sees the truth, but only after Hathaway takes to blowing up signs’ switch boxes (the word “terrorism” is of course not used in the text, although it surely would be today):
Then the flicker of lights cleared and steadied, blazing out continuously, and together the crowd looked up at the decks of brilliant letters. The phrases, and every combination of them possible, were entirely familiar, and Franklin knew that he had been reading them for weeks as he passed up and down the expressway.
BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW
YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES
Like most of these stories, “The Subliminal Man” ends on a pessimistic note, with Franklin choosing to ignore his brief enlightenment and give in. Ballard drives his criticism home in the final image of the story, with Franklin and his wife heading out to shop:
They walked out into the trim drive, the shadows of the signs swinging across the quiet neighbourhood as the day progressed, sweeping over the heads of the people on their way to the supermarket like the blades of enormous scythes.
4. “The Subliminal Man” offers a critique of consumerism that John Carpenter would make with more humor, violence, and force in his 1988 film They Live (watch it online here). In Carpenter’s film, the hero John Nada (played by Roddy Piper) finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see through the ads, billboards, and other commercials he’s exposed. What’s underneath? Naked consumerism:
The images here recall the opening lines of “The Subliminal Man”: ‘The signs, Doctor! Have you seen the signs?’ Like Ballard’s story, Carpenter’s film is about waking up, to seeing the controlling messages under the surface.
In his film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Žižek offers a compelling critique of just how painful it is to wake up to these messages:
It’s worth pointing out that Carpenter offers a far more optimistic vision than Ballard. Ballard’s hero gives in—goes back to sleep, shuts his eyes. Carpenter’s hero Nada resists the subliminal messages—he actually takes up arms against them. This active resistance is possible because Carpenter allows his narrative an existential escape hatch: In They Live, there are real, genuine bad guys, body-snatching ugly-assed aliens—others that have imposed consumerism on humanity to enslave them. That’s the big trick to They Live: It’s not us, it’s them.
Ballard understands that there is no them; indeed, even as the story skirts around the idea of a conspiracy to dupe consumers into cycles of nonstop buying, working, and disposing, it never pins that conspiracy on any individual or group. There’s no attack on corporations or government—there’s not even a nebulous “them” or “they” that appears to have controlling agency in “The Subliminal Man.” Rather, Ballard’s story posits ideology as the controlling force, with the only escape a kind of forced suicide.
5. By way of concluding—and, before I forget, obviously this story merits inclusion in the ideal collection I’ve been imagining, The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard—by way of concluding I would return to my earlier point: I don’t think that those who engage in consumerism-as-sport, in shopping-as-a-feeling are quite as blind as Ballard or Carpenter represent. I think they are aware. Hell, they enjoy it. What I think Ballard and Carpenter (and others, of course) really point to is the deep dissatisfaction that many of us feel with this dominant mode of life. For Ballard, we have resistance in the form of the beatnik Hathaway, an artist, a creator, a person who can perceive what real leisure would mean. For Carpenter, Nada is the resister—an outsider, a loner, a weirdo too. It’s somehow far more satisfying to believe that those who engage in spectacle consumerism are brainwashed by aliens than it is to have to come to terms with the notion that these people are acting through their own agency, of their own will and volition. Happy shopping everyone!
That morning, the city was celebrating Consumer Thanksgiving Day. This feast came around every year, on a day in November, and had been set up to allow shoppers to display their gratitude toward the god Production, who tirelessly satisfied their every desire. The biggest department store in town organized a parade every year: an enormous balloon in the shape of a garishly colored doll was paraded through the main streets, pulled by ribbons that sequin-clad girls held as they marched behind a musical band. That day, the procession was coming down Fifth Avenue: the majorette twirled her baton in the air, the big drums banged, and the balloon giant, representing the Satisfied Customer, flew among the skyscrapers, obediently advancing on leashes held by girls in kepis, tassels, and fringed epaulets, riding spangly motorcycles.
At the same time, another parade was crossing Manhattan. The flaky, moldy moon was also advancing, sailing between the skyscrapers, pulled by the naked girls, and behind it came a line of beat-up cars and skeletons of trucks, amid a silent crowd that was gradually increasing in size. Thousands of people joined the throng that had been following the moon since the early hours of the morning, people of all colors, whole families with children of every age, especially as the procession filed past the crowded black and Puerto Rican areas of Harlem.
Read the rest of Italo Calvino’s short story “The Daughters of the Moon” — or listen to Robert Coover read and discuss it.
“Fire Dreams” by Carl Sandburg
(Written to be read aloud, if so be, Thanksgiving Day)
I remember here by the fire,
In the flickering reds and saffrons,
They came in a ramshackle tub,
Pilgrims in tall hats,
Pilgrims of iron jaws,
Drifting by weeks on beaten seas,
And the random chapters say
They were glad and sang to God.
Since the iron-jawed men sat down
And said, “Thanks, O God,”
For life and soup and a little less
Than a hobo handout to-day,
Since gray winds blew gray patterns of sleet on Plymouth Rock,
Since the iron-jawed men sang “Thanks, O God,”
You and I, O Child of the West,
Remember more than ever
November and the hunter’s moon,
November and the yellow-spotted hills.
In the name of the iron-jawed men
I will stand up and say yes till the finish is come and gone.
God of all broken hearts, empty hands, sleeping soldiers,
God of all star-flung beaches of night sky,
I and my love-child stand up together to-day and sing: “Thanks, O God.”
Enjoy Thanksgiving with our menu of literary recipes:
Christmas Bonus: George Orwell’s Recipes for Plum Cake and Christmas Pudding
“Hunting the Deceitful Turkey” — Mark Twain
When I was a boy my uncle and his big boys hunted with the rifle, the youngest boy Fred and I with a shotgun—a small single-barrelled shotgun which was properly suited to our size and strength; it was not much heavier than a broom. We carried it turn about, half an hour at a time. I was not able to hit anything with it, but I liked to try. Fred and I hunted feathered small game, the others hunted deer, squirrels, wild turkeys, and such things. My uncle and the big boys were good shots. They killed hawks and wild geese and such like on the wing; and they didn’t wound or kill squirrels, they stunned them. When the dogs treed a squirrel, the squirrel would scamper aloft and run out on a limb and flatten himself along it, hoping to make himself invisible in that way—and not quite succeeding. You could see his wee little ears sticking up. You couldn’t see his nose, but you knew where it was. Then the hunter, despising a “rest” for his rifle, stood up and took offhand aim at the limb and sent a bullet into it immediately under the squirrel’s nose, and down tumbled the animal, unwounded, but unconscious; the dogs gave him a shake and he was dead. Sometimes when the distance was great and the wind not accurately allowed for, the bullet would hit the squirrel’s head; the dogs could do as they pleased with that one—the hunter’s pride was hurt, and he wouldn’t allow it to go into the gamebag.
In the first faint gray of the dawn the stately wild turkeys would be stalking around in great flocks, and ready to be sociable and answer invitations to come and converse with other excursionists of their kind. The hunter concealed himself and imitated the turkey-call by sucking the air through the leg-bone of a turkey which had previously answered a call like that and lived only just long enough to regret it. There is nothing that furnishes a perfect turkey-call except that bone. Another of Nature’s treacheries, you see. She is full of them; half the time she doesn’t know which she likes best—to betray her child or protect it. In the case of the turkey she is badly mixed: she gives it a bone to be used in getting it into trouble, and she also furnishes it with a trick for getting itself out of the trouble again. When a mamma-turkey answers an invitation and finds she has made a mistake in accepting it, she does as the mamma-partridge does—remembers a previous engagement—and goes limping and scrambling away, pretending to be very lame; and at the same time she is saying to her not-visible children, “Lie low, keep still, don’t expose yourselves; I shall be back as soon as I have beguiled this shabby swindler out of the country.”
When a person is ignorant and confiding, this immoral device can have tiresome results. I followed an ostensibly lame turkey over a considerable part of the United States one morning, because I believed in her and could not think she would deceive a mere boy, and one who was trusting her and considering her honest. I had the single-barrelled shotgun, but my idea was to catch her alive. I often got within rushing distance of her, and then made my rush; but always, just as I made my final plunge and put my hand down where her back had been, it wasn’t there; it was only two or three inches from there and I brushed the tail-feathers as I landed on my stomach—a very close call, but still not quite close enough; that is, not close enough for success, but just close enough to convince me that I could do it next time. She always waited for me, a little piece away, and let on to be resting and greatly fatigued; which was a lie, but I believed it, for I still thought her honest long after I ought to have begun to doubt her, suspecting that this was no way for a high-minded bird to be acting. I followed, and followed, and followed, making my periodical rushes, and getting up and brushing the dust off, and resuming the voyage with patient confidence; indeed, with a confidence which grew, for I could see by the change of climate and vegetation that we were getting up into the high latitudes, and as she always looked a little tireder and a little more discouraged after each rush, I judged that I was safe to win, in the end, the competition being purely a matter of staying power and the advantage lying with me from the start because she was lame.
Along in the afternoon I began to feel fatigued myself. Neither of us had had any rest since we first started on the excursion, which was upwards of ten hours before, though latterly we had paused awhile after rushes, I letting on to be thinking about something else; but neither of us sincere, and both of us waiting for the other to call game but in no real hurry about it, for indeed those little evanescent snatches of rest were very grateful to the feelings of us both; it would naturally be so, skirmishing along like that ever since dawn and not a bite in the meantime; at least for me, though sometimes as she lay on her side fanning herself with a wing and praying for strength to get out of this difficulty a grasshopper happened along whose time had come, and that was well for her, and fortunate, but I had nothing—nothing the whole day.
More than once, after I was very tired, I gave up taking her alive, and was going to shoot her, but I never did it, although it was my right, for I did not believe I could hit her; and besides, she always stopped and posed, when I raised the gun, and this made me suspicious that she knew about me and my marksmanship, and so I did not care to expose myself to remarks.
I did not get her, at all. When she got tired of the game at last, she rose from almost under my hand and flew aloft with the rush and whir of a shell and lit on the highest limb of a great tree and sat down and crossed her legs and smiled down at me, and seemed gratified to see me so astonished.
I was ashamed, and also lost; and it was while wandering the woods hunting for myself that I found a deserted log cabin and had one of the best meals there that in my life-days I have eaten. The weed-grown garden was full of ripe tomatoes, and I ate them ravenously, though I had never liked them before. Not more than two or three times since have I tasted anything that was so delicious as those tomatoes. I surfeited myself with them, and did not taste another one until I was in middle life. I can eat them now, but I do not like the look of them. I suppose we have all experienced a surfeit at one time or another. Once, in stress of circumstances, I ate part of a barrel of sardines, there being nothing else at hand, but since then I have always been able to get along without sardines.
“NOW I have been left sucking the mop again,” Jane blurted out in the rare-poison room of her mother’s magnificent duplex apartment on a tree-lined street in a desirable location. “I have been left sucking the mop in a big way. Hogo de Bergerac no longer holds me in the highest esteem. His highest esteem has shifted to another, and now he holds her in it, and I am alone with my malice at last. Face to face with it. For the first time in my history, I have no lover to temper my malice with healing balsam-scented older love. Now there is nothing but malice.” Jane regarded the floor-to-ceiling Early American spice racks with their neatly labeled jars of various sorts of bane including dayshade, scumlock, hyoscine, azote, hurtwort and milkleg. “Now I must witch someone, for that is my role, and to flee one’s role, as Gimbal tells us, is in the final analysis bootless. But the question is, what form shall my malice take, on this occasion? This braw February day? Something in the area of interpersonal relations would be interesting. Whose interpersonal relations shall I poison, with the tasteful savagery of my abundant imagination and talent for concoction? I think I will go around to Snow White’s house, where she cohabits with the seven men in a mocksome travesty of approved behavior, and see what is stirring there. If something is stirring, perhaps I can arrange a sleep for it — in the corner of a churchyard, for example.”
From Donald Barthelme’s novel Snow White.
In the seventh grade, my friend Tilford gave me a copy of They Might Be Giant’s album Flood. This was in 1991, back when “alternative” music was far more varied than it is now. What I mean by this is that back in those halcyon days, we listened to anything we could get our ears to—and really listened. This meant TMBG, R.E.M, RHCP, KMFDM, Sonic Youth, The Pixies, Fugazi, the Dead Kennedys, The Dead Milkmen, The Meat Puppets, The Meatmen, The Minutemen—just anything different than what was on the radio. Lack of access to music meant that we listened to a wider diversity of bands than maybe Kids Today do. (These are all crotchety claims. Get off my lawn).
Anyway, Flood—the album, its freewheeling zaniness, its nasal vibe, its silliness, its diversity, its poppiness—so much of it is still imprinted on my brain. “Birdhouse in Your Soul” is probably the only TMBG song that I’ll still put on a mix CD (okay, that and “Minimum Wage”), but Flood is rich in its strange pop vibes. Songs like “Road Movie to Berlin” (later covered by Frank Black) and “They Might Be Giants” played on a loop in my brain in the early nineties. Other songs like the jokey cover “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” and “Particle Man” pointed the way to the kind of kid-friendly skewed pop that would define the second half of TMBG’s career. “You Racist Friend” is one of the most direct protest songs I’ve ever heard.
I’ve never forgiven TMBG for quitting two songs in to their set when I saw them in 1996. John Linnell was too ill to continue, and called the show off. In retrospect, I understand why—dude was sick, really sick (I can remember his face)—but for me it was an easy break with a band that lacked the art rock verve that I found more interesting in the late nineties. I could write They Might Be Giants off as kid music. That’s undoubtedly an unfair assessment though.
S. Alexander Reed and Philip Sandifer have written a new book (in the 33 1/3 series) on Flood. In the blurb, below, we get a clear overview of how important this record was—even if it isn’t discussed along with Sonic Youth’s Goo and Dirty, R.E.M.’s Green, or The Pixies’ last record (not to mention all the “grunge” bands that exploded after those records). Here’s the blurb:
For a few decades now, They Might Be Giants’ album Flood has been a beacon (or at least a nightlight) for people who might rather read than rock out, who care more about science fiction than Slayer, who are more often called clever than cool. Neither the band’s hip origins in the Lower East Side scene nor Flood’s platinum certification can cover up the record’s singular importance at the geek fringes of culture.
Flood’s significance to this audience helps us understand a certain way of being: it shows that geek identity doesn’t depend on references to Hobbits or Spock ears, but can instead be a set of creative and interpretive practices marked by playful excess—a flood of ideas.
The album also clarifies an historical moment. The brainy sort of kids who listened to They Might Be Giants saw their own cultural options grow explosively during the late 1980s and early 1990s amid the early tech boom and America’s advancing leftist social tides. Whether or not it was the band’s intention, Flood’s jubilant proclamation of an identity unconcerned with coolness found an ideal audience at an ideal turning point. This book tells the story.