Sic transit sin (George Herriman’s Krazy Kat)

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“The 27 Depravities” — Don DeLillo

Every day made her more certain of my various failings. I compiled a mental list, which I often recited aloud to her, asking how accurate it was in reflecting her grievances. This was my chief weapon of the period. She hated the feeling that someone knew her mind.

1.      Self-satisfied.

2.      Uncommitted.

3.      Willing to settle.

4.      Willing to sit and stare, conserving yourself for some end-of-life event, like God’s face or the squaring of the circle.

5.      You like to advertise yourself as refreshingly sane and healthy in a world of driven neurotics. You make a major production of being undriven.

6.      You pretend.

7.      You pretend not to understand other people’s motives.

8.      You pretend to be even-tempered. You feel it gives you a moral and intellectual advantage. You are always looking for an advantage.

9.      You don’t see anything beyond your own modest contentment. We all live on the ocean swell of your well-being. Everything else is trivial and distracting, or monumental and distracting, and only an unsporting wife or child would lodge a protest against your teensy weensy happiness.

10.   You think being a husband and father is a form of Hitlerism and you shrink from it. Authority makes you uneasy, doesn’t it? You draw back from anything that resembles an official capacity.

11.   You don’t allow yourself the full pleasure of things.

12.   You keep studying your son for clues to your own nature.

13.   You admire your wife too much and talk about it too much. Admiration is your public stance, a form of self-protection if I read it correctly.

14.   Gratified by your own feelings of jealousy.

15.   Politically neuter.

16.   Eager to believe the worst.

17.   You will defer to others, you will be acutely sensitive to the feelings of strangers, but you will contrive to misunderstand your family. We make you wonder if you are the outsider in this group.

18.   You have trouble sleeping, an attempt to gain my sympathy.

19.   You sneeze in books.

20.   You have an eye for your friends’ wives. Your wife’s friends. Somewhat speculative, somewhat detached.

21.   You go to extremes to keep your small mean feelings hidden. Only in arguments do they appear. Completing your revenge. Hiding it even from yourself at times. Not willing to be seen taking your small mean everyday revenge on me, which, granted, I have sometimes abundantly earned. Pretending your revenge is a misinterpretation on my part, a misunderstanding, some kind of accident.

22.   You contain your love. You feel it but don’t like to show it. When you do show it, it is the result of some long drawn-out decision making process, isn’t it, you bastard.

23.   Nurser of small hurts.

24.   Whiskey sipper.

25.   Underachiever.

26.   Reluctant adulterer.

27.   American.

We came to refer to these as the 27 Depravities, like some reckoning of hollow-cheeked church theologians. Since then I’ve sometimes had to remind myself it was my list, not hers.

From Don DeLillo’s novel The Names.

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Illustration for Frankenstein — Bernie Wrightson

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The Dog — Francisco Goya

The Dog, 1819 by Francisco Goya (1746-1828)

Posted in Art

“All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music”

The Lovers — Rene Magritte

imgThe Lovers, 1928 by Rene Magritte (1898-1967)

The Lovers — Rene Magritte

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The Lovers, 1928 by Rene Magritte (1898-1967)

“Keep your eyes open when you kiss: do: when” — John Berryman

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Meditation — Gely Korzhev

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Meditation, 1982 by Gely Korzhev (1925-2012)

Read “Trilobites,” a short story by Breece D’J. Pancake

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“Trilobites”

by

Breece D’J. Pancake


I open the truck’s door, step onto the brick side street. I look at Company Hill again, all sort of worn down and round. A long time ago it was real craggy, and stood like an island in the Teays River. It took over a million years to make that smooth little hill, and I’ve looked all over it for trilobites. I think how it has always been there and always will be, least for as long as it matters. The air is smoky with summertime. A bunch of starlings swim over me. I was born in this country and I have never very much wanted to leave. I remember Pop’s dead eyes looking at me. They were real dry, and that took something out of me. I shut the door, head for the café.

I see a concrete patch in the street. It’s shaped like Florida, and I recollect what I wrote in Ginny’s yearbook: “We will live on mangoes and love.” And she up and left without me—two years she’s been down there without me. She sends me postcards with alligator wrestlers and flamingos on the front. She never asks me any questions. I feel like a real fool for what I wrote, and go into the café.

The place is empty, and I rest in the cooled air. Tinker Reilly’s little sister pours my coffee. She has good hips. They are kind of like Ginny’s and they slope nice curves to her legs. Hips and legs like that climb steps into airplanes. She goes to the counter end and scoffs down the rest of her sundae. I smile at her, but she’s jailbait. Jailbait and black snakes are two things “Won’t touch with a window pole. One time I used an old black snake for a bullwhip, snapped the sucker’s head off, and Pop beat hell out of me with it. I think how Pop could make me pretty mad sometimes. I grin.

I think about last night when Ginny called. Her old man drove her down from the airport in Charleston. She was already bored. Can we get together? Sure. Maybe do some brew? Sure. Same old Colly. Same old Ginny. She talked through her beak. I wanted to tell her Pop had died, and Mom was on the warpath to sell the farm, but Ginny was talking through her beak. It gave me the creeps.

Just like the cups give me the creeps. I look at the cups hanging on pegs by the storefront. They’re decal-named and covered with grease and dust. There’s four of them, and one is Pop’s, but that isn’t what gives me the creeps. The cleanest one is Jim’s. It’s clean because he still uses it, but it hangs there with the rest. Through the window, I can see him crossing the street. His joints are cemented with arthritis. I think of how long it’ll be before I croak, but Jim is old, and it gives me the creeps to see his cup hanging up there. I go to the door to help him in.

He says, “Tell the truth, now,” and his old paw pinches my arm.

I say, “Can’t do her.” I help him to his stool. Continue reading “Read “Trilobites,” a short story by Breece D’J. Pancake”

Carnival — Max Beckmann

Carnival 1920 by Max Beckmann 1884-1950

Carnival, 1920 by Max Beckmann (1884-1950)

Peter Greenaway’s Darwin, a biography in 18 tableaux

Refugees — Tomer Hanuka

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Darwin anecdote (David Markson)

A review of The Paris Review’s overproduced podcast

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In his introduction to the first episode of The Paris Review Podcast, former editor Lorin Stein tells us that we’re going to hear some great writing. He then claims, “what you won’t hear is much in the way of hosting from me or anyone else. We’re just going to let the writing speak for itself, the way it always has in the magazine.” The first two parts are true—there’s plenty of great writing here from The Paris Review archive, and there’s no one hosting the pieces. The last part of Stein’s claim is the problem though: The Paris Review Podcast repeatedly refuses to simply let the writing speak for itself. Prose and poems alike are slathered in distracting and silly sound effects and busy musical cues. This is a shame, because the estimable voice talents the producers have enlisted do a marvelous job conveying the tones, mood, and rhythms of the pieces the producers have selected (most of which are excellent). Perhaps the podcast’s producers simply don’t trust their readers enough to stay engaged without all the buzzing clutter—but for me the overproduction is too much.

There are ten episodes of The Paris Review Podcast to date. I have listened to half of them: episodes 10, 1, 5, 2, and 3 (in that order). Episode 10, “The Occasional Dream,” was perhaps an unfortunate starting point, as it contains some of the most overproduced segments I heard in the series.

The problem wasn’t the first selection, a fantastic Frank O’Hara poem called “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” which I’d never read before. David Sedaris’s reading conveys the poem’s wit and depth, and the musical cues are only mildly intrusive, bleeding in at beginning and end. Then we get to Roberto Bolaño’s poem “When Lisa Told Me,” read by Dakota Johnson. The poem is set in a phone booth, so the producers, not trusting Bolaño’s powers of mimesis, or the auditor’s imagination (or both), include phone booth sound effects, like change dropping into a slot, buttons being punched, a dial tone. There’s also some distracting music. All of this takes away from Bolaño’s music (and Johnson’s capable reading).

By the time I got to Mary-Louis Parker reading Joy Williams’s story “Making Friends” I was dismayed. Cheesy calypso music crawls all over the story. When Williams notes a dog panting, the producers employ the sound effect of a dog panting. This is not how fiction works. In my distracted consternation, I forgot to pay attention to the story itself.

The worst offender by far though is an archival recording of John Ashberry reading his poem “Soonest Mended” which has been, for some reason I do not understand, accompanied by a new guitar composition by Steve Gunn. Gunn’s music is wonderful, his guitar evocative of fingerpickers like John Fahey and Leo Kottke, and I would be happy to listen to it on its own. Mashing it up with Ashberry’s poem adds nothing—or rather, we have subtraction by addition.

Archival recordings fare better elsewhere. In Episode 2, Jack Kerouac tells the story of the Buddha without any fussy interruptions. Kerouac’s unadorned riff showcases the podcast’s potential to present wonderful little moments, stitching them to other wonderful moments, without any overproduced impositions. Similarly, the inaugural episode, “Times of Cloud,” gives us Maya Angelou and Paris Review founder George Plimpton in conversation. The producers choose an apt moment; Angelou essentially offers a raison dêtre for The Paris Review Podcast:

I want to hear how English sounds; how Edna St. Vincent Millay heard English. I want to hear it, so I read it aloud. It is not so that I can then imitate it. It is to remind me what a glorious language it is.

The most “glorious language” in Episode 1 of The Paris Review Podcast comes from Wallace Shawn reading Denis Johnson’s classic story “Car-Crash While Hitchhiking.” A really good reader—and Wallace Shawn is a really good reader—can help us hear a story we’ve read a dozen times in a new way. It’s a testament to both Shawn’s reading and Johnson’s prose that they withstand the goofy sound effects and needless music the producers daub all over the story. Johnson’s narrator has already told us that it is raining; we do not need a canned rain shower murking up the audio.

The mimetic cloudiness of sound effects can be cheesy, but the unneeded musical cues are often the more damaging imposition. In Episode 5, Alison Fraser reads Lucia Berlin’s  “B.F. and Me,” conveying the story’s odd flirty energy with aplomb. The bluesy vamping soundtrack adds nothing though—again, it takes away from the auditor’s experience of the prose. In the same episode, Caleb Crain reads his wonderful short story “Envoy.” The tale’s strange poignant climax manages to survive the unnecessary intrusion of a heavy-handed musical cue that could easily have disrupted the ambiguities in the last few sentences. A Dorothea Lasky poem in Episode 3 begins well enough. Its imagistic contours of concrete reality unfurl without any noisy claptrap. But when the poem’s second half steers toward abstraction, the producers add a piano étude to compete with Lasky’s own music. And in the climactic moment in Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?” (also in Episode 3)—you know, the part where the characters, um, dance—the producers actually add a fucking country waltz.

The Paris Review Podcast perhaps suffers from an anxiety of influence. I imagine the show wishes to separate itself from The New Yorker’s no-frills Fiction Podcast, where one author reads another author’s story, and then discusses the story with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman. The Paris Review Podcast veers far more closely to the busy buzziness of Radiolab, with a dash of This American Life. I can understand the appeal there, the attempt to capture some of that ole timey radio Foley stage energy. But Radiolab is its own medium with its own formal innovations. The Paris Review is a mixtape, yes, but it’s a mixtape of poetry, prose, and interviews. A poem that John Ashberry wrote and read aloud in his own voice does not need the innovation of a contemporary guitar score. We do not need the sound of shallots simmering in a pan to convey that someone is cooking, as happens in Shelly Oria’s story “My Wife, In Converse.” We do not need a bluesy-guitar bend or the sustain of melancholy piano chords to convey the emotion that the writer has already conveyed through the language.  The effect of such impositions is like someone doing shadow puppets over an oil painting, or talking during a film, or pouring soup over a really good salad.

And yet you’ll note above that I listened to half of the podcasts. I listened while walking or driving or doing small household chores or yard chores. The stories, the poems, the interviews are quite good. There’s so much potential here. But it often seems like The Paris Review Podcast is content to present the material as an ambient backdrop, an aural texture that might compete with a commute. This is wholly unnecessary. The form is already there, embedded in the content—the language itself. And the language is best—most glorious, Angelou might say—when it is naked.

 

“The Scarlet Woman” — Fenton Johnson

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