Red Table — Zoey Frank 

Red Table, 2016 by Zoey Frank (b. 1987)

“Imagination” — James Baldwin

“Fanged, etc.” — Donald Barthelme

2020-08-02_185600_1

Fathers are like blocks of marble-giant cubes, highly polished, with veins and seams-placed squarely in your path. They block your path. They cannot be climbed over, neither can they be slithered past. They are the “past,” and very likely the slither, if the slither is thought of as that accommodating maneuver you make to escape notice, or get by unscathed. If you attempt to go around one, you will find that another (winking at the first) has mysteriously appeared athwart the trail. Or maybe it is the same one, moving with the speed of paternity. Look closely at color and texture. Is this giant square block of marble similar in color and texture to a slice of rare roast beef? Your very father’s complexion! Do not try to draw too many conclusions from this; the obvious ones are sufficient and correct. Some fathers like to dress up in black robes and go out and give away the sacraments, adding to their black robes the chasuble, stole, and alb, in reverse order. Of these “fathers” I shall not speak, except to commend them for their lack of ambition and sacrifice, especially the sacrifice of the “franking privilege, ” or the privilege of naming the first male child after yourself: Franklin Edward A’albiel, Jr. Of all possible fathers, the fanged father is the least desirable. If you can get your lariat around one of his fangs, and quickly wrap the other end of it several times around your saddle horn, and if your horse is a trained roping horse and knows what to do, how to plant his front feet and then back up with small nervous steps, keeping the lariat taut, then you have a chance. Do not try to rope both fangs at the same time; concentrate on the right. Do the thing fang by fang, and then you will be safe, or more nearly so. I have seen some old, yellowed six-inch fangs that were drawn in this way, and once, in a whaling museum in a seaport town, a twelve-inch fang, mistakenly labeled as the tusk of a walrus. But I recognized it at once, it was a father fang, which has its own peculiarly shaped, six-pointed root. I am pleased never to have met that father…

A chapter from “A Manual for Sons,” itself a chapter of Donald Barthelme’s 1975 novle The Dead Father. 

The Fortune Teller — Robert Colquhoun

The Fortune Teller, 1946 by Robert Colquhoun (1914-1962)

Benjamín Labatu’s When We Cease to Understand the World (Book acquired, 11 Sept. 2021)

Benjamín Labatut’s Booker shortlisted When We Cease to Understand the World is forthcoming in the US from NYRB this fall in translation by Adrian Nathan West. The book bears blurb’s from Geoff Dyer, Mark Haddon, and Philip Pullman and Barack Obama put it on his 2021 summer reading list.

NYRB’s blurb:

When We Cease to Understand the World is a book about the complicated links between scientific and mathematical discovery, madness, and destruction.

Fritz Haber, Alexander Grothendieck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger—these are some of luminaries into whose troubled lives Benjamín Labatut thrusts the reader, showing us how they grappled with the most profound questions of existence. They have strokes of unparalleled genius, alienate friends and lovers, descend into isolation and insanity. Some of their discoveries reshape human life for the better; others pave the way to chaos and unimaginable suffering. The lines are never clear.

At a breakneck pace and with a wealth of disturbing detail, Labatut uses the imaginative resources of fiction to tell the stories of the scientists and mathematicians who expanded our notions of the possible.

Feathered Friends — Johfra Bosschart

Feathered Friends, 1962 by Johfra Bosschart (1919-1998)

Huddle and cling | Donald Barthelme

…God was standing in the basement reading the meters to see how much grace had been used up in the month of June. Grace is electricity, science has found, it is not like electricity, it is electricity and God was down in the basement reading the meters in His blue jump suit with the flashlight stuck in the back pocket.

“The mechanical age is drawing to a close,” I said to her.

“Or has already done so,” she replied.

“It was a good age,” I said. “I was comfortable in it, relatively. Probably I will not enjoy the age to come quite so much. I don’t like its look.”

“One must be fair. We don’t know yet what kind of an age the next one will be. Although I feel in my bones that it will be an age inimical to personal well-being and comfort, and that is what I like, personal well-being and comfort.”

“Do you suppose there is something to be done?” I asked her.

“Huddle and cling,” said Mrs. Davis. “We can huddle and cling. It will pall, of course, everything palls, in time…”

From “At the End of the Age of Mechanical Age” by Donald Barthelme.

Army of Irritation — Viktor Safonkin

Army of Irritation, 1999 by Viktor Safonkin (b. 1967)

RIP Norm Macdonald

RIP Norm Macdonald, 1959-2021

The Canadian humorist Norm Macdonald died today from cancer.

Macdonald’s dry, loose, deadpan style of humor was not for everyone, but I loved it. He was a cast member on Saturday Night Live when I was in high school, serving as the Weekend Update anchor and doing impressions on the show until 1998, when he was fired.

I got to see him live that year, at the University of North Florida’s homecoming thing. He was an ill-cast headliner, and the show seemed to simultaneously tank and soar as droves walked out to his postmodern/postdroll riffs on dropping acid and pigfucking. (He managed to offend the university president to the point where the dude up and left within about 10 minutes of the set.) Watching Norm Macdonald live was like an unedited extension of watching him on TV—this was a guy leading you out into some weird weeds, dropping non sequitur breadcrumbs as you went. The frustration for much of Macdonald’s audience, was, Hell, hey, where are we going?–what is this all adding up to, where’s the punchline, what’s the point? The point is the wandering of course, a sentiment that Macdonald would roast I think.

Years ago, at one of those stupid Comedy Central roasts—maybe it was Bob Saget or William Shatner?—the comedian Jim Norton described Macdonald’s loose, shuffling set as “like watching Henry Fonda pick blueberries.” Macdonald’s response is perfect:

The looseness never added up to anything like stardom (when I saw Macdonald live, still bitter from his firing at NBC, he complained that “they fucking hate me there”), but he did star in the 1998 Bob Saget-directed comedy Dirty Work (great silly stuff)as well as 2000’s Screwed (which isn’t that great). He also starred in an ABC sitcom called Norm opposite Laurie Metcalf. (I watched it sometimes over antenna TV my last years of college; at its best it was a send up of TV tropes and audience expectations, but it was hardly ever at its best.)

Norm Macdonald did plenty of voice over stuff and small role appearances, but his best stuff was his stand-up comedy and his late night appearances. He was a staple on both Letterman and Conan O’Brien, a postmodern Charles Grodin, making me sneeze beer through my nose way too late at night in the late nineties and beyond.

In the last decade of his too-short life—

—and here I just have to say, I always thought of the guy as old, old, impossibly, cantankerously old, and I now see he died way too young at 61, that he’s only two decades older than me, but I guess that’s how life works, old is just some goal posts we push away—-

In the last decade of his too-short life, Norm Macdonald continued to do his thing—stand-up and voice gigs and standby late night spots. Like every other motherfucker in the past two decades, he had a podcast, Norm Macdonald Live. This “The Aristocrats!” style bit on the serial murderer Albert Fish is one of my favorites from that era:

It wasn’t until last year, during Early Lockdown Times, that I watched his 2018 “interview” show Norm Macdonald Has a Show on Netflix. The series surpasses cringe comedy or anti-comedy or whatever you want to call it. It reads like someone who genuinely doesn’t care if the project gets renewed (which it didn’t). The best episodes are the first, with David Spade, and the fourth, with David Letterman. Spade is not bright enough to figure out that the show is a goof on showbiz, a big fuckyou to the idea of careerism in comedy; Letterman figures it out immediately and plays along, to a point. Calling what he did “anti-comedy” misses the point. He and his sidekick Adam Eget were laughing plenty.

Macdonald’s legacy might be complicated. His jokes were often very, very dark, and in the past few years, out of step with the zeitgeist. But I always found something simultaneously and impossibly oblique and sharp in what Norm Macdonald did. He wasn’t for everyone, but he spoke to me, and I’ll miss him.

Capture — Jillian Tenby

Capture, 2000 by Jillian Denby (b. 1944)

Dehydrated — Lola Gil

Dehydrated, 2019 by Lola Gil (b. 1975)

The Temptation of Saint Anthony (After Maerten de Vos) — Mitchell Villa

The Temptation of Saint Anthony (After Maerten de Vos), 2021 by Mitchell Villa

A very incomplete list of good or adequate (and primarily indirect) 9/11 novels and short stories

The Names, Don DeLillo (1982)

In the Shadow of No Towers, Art Spiegelman (2004)

“The Suffering Channel,” David Foster Wallace (2004)

“Twilight of the Superheroes,” Deborah Eisenberg (2006)

Falling Man, Don DeLillo (2007)

“The Vision of Peter Damien,” Chris Adrian (2008)

Point Omega, Don DeLillo (2010)

Open City, Teju Cole (2011)

“Home,” George Saunders (2011)

Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon (2013)

Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish (2014)

“Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” Denis Johnson (2017)

My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh (2018)

Monstrous dose of reality | Susan Sontag on 9/11

The disconnect between last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word “cowardly” is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.

Our leaders are bent on convincing us that everything is O.K. America is not afraid. Our spirit is unbroken, although this was a day that will live in infamy and America is now at war. But everything is not O.K. And this was not Pearl Harbor. We have a robotic President who assures us that America still stands tall. A wide spectrum of public figures, in and out of office, who are strongly opposed to the policies being pursued abroad by this Administration apparently feel free to say nothing more than that they stand united behind President Bush. A lot of thinking needs to be done, and perhaps is being done in Washington and elsewhere, about the ineptitude of American intelligence and counter-intelligence, about options available to American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, and about what constitutes a smart program of military defense. But the public is not being asked to bear much of the burden of reality. The unanimously applauded, self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party Congress seemed contemptible. The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy.

Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics, the politics of a democracy—which entails disagreement, which promotes candor—has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. “Our country is strong,” we are told again and again. I for one don’t find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.

From The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town,” published 14 Sept. 2001.

Other writers, including Denis Johnson, John Updike, and Donald Antrim offered thoughts as well.

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part IV

I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, starting with the sixtieth story and working my way to the first and writing about it.

Previous entries:

Stories 60-55

Stories 54-49

Stories 48-43

This post covers stories 42-37.

47. “The Crisis” (Great Days, 1979)

“The Crisis” is a bit of a toss off, a bricolage of the last decade (’69-’79) that never coheres into a duet, monologue, theme, or even punchline. Its plot, such as it is, details (details is not the correct verb) the circumstances of an absurd failed revolution. Ostensibly a dialogue (or is it a chorus?), “The Crisis” doesn’t add up to much, and is perhaps best summarized in one of its closing images:

Distant fingers from the rebel forces are raised in fond salute.

Is Barthelme shooting his readers the bird?

The story feels like a slapdash riff on Walker Percy’s weird and wonderful satirical novel Love in the Ruins. (Barthelme was a huge Percy fan.)

46. “Our Work and Why We Do It” (Amateurs, 1976)

“Our Work and Why We Do It” is self-consciously postmodern, a mash-up of Beckett’s absurdism, Benjamin’s seminal “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” burgeoning Marxist aesthetic philosophy, and the modes and means of modernism. The opening line seems to satirize capital’s relationship between art, artist, and the means of production: “As admirable volume after admirable volume tumbled from the sweating presses . . . ” The ellipses are not mine; rather, Barthelme sets the stage here for a print economy of capitalist transactions. The Wells Fargo man arrives, gun in hand, to pick up the “bundle of Alice Cooper T-shirts we had just printed up.” He hurries the “precious product” — that’s all it is, product, content — to the “glittering fans”.

We then learn there’s a bit of conflict between the owners and the workers.

A few lines later, the narrator quips, “And I saw the figure 5 writ in gold.” Barthelme copies-cuts-pastes the modernists into his collage here—we get the visual of Charles Demuth’s painting, itself copying-cutting-pasting Willliam Carlos Williams’ “The Great Figure.”

Publication is a rough business: “If only we could confine ourselves to matchbook covers!” laments the narrator–

But matchbook covers are not our destiny. Our destiny is to accomplish 1. 5 million impressions per day. In the next quarter, that figure will be upped by twelve percent, unless

The hanging “unless” is Barthelme’s rhetorical trick and not my oversight—the punchline is “leather,” by the way.  “Leather is the way to accomplish more impressions. But the real hanging punchline is that word “impressions,” with its many connotations.

45. “The Great Hug” (Amateurs, 1976)

Such a great weird little story—is it about a toxic relationship between the Balloon Man and the Pin Lady? is it a metaphor for relationships in the modern era? is it an autobiographical riff, Barthelme’s love woes scribbled into a weird parody? —an oblique comment on e.e. cummings “in Just” — look, I don’t fucken know, maybe read it here. It’ll only take a few minutes, and then you can think about it for a week or so.

44. “The School” (Amateurs, 1976)

“The School” is wonderful stuff, and will take you like, what, 9, 10 minutes to read, if not less.

It’s a monologue I guess, delivered by a sorry educator whose schooling has killed off all manner of creatures. In the first three paragraphs we learn about the school’s failure to keep alive trees, snakes, and herb gardens, but then there’s a more drastic turn:

Of course we expected the tropical fish to die, that was no surprise. Those numbers, you look at them crooked and they’re belly-up on the surface. But the lesson plan called for a tropical fish input at that point, there was nothing we could do, it happens every year, you just have to hurry past it.

We weren’t even supposed to have a puppy.

We weren’t even supposed to have a puppy—goddammit Donald Barthelme. This line made me laugh out loud. And then it made me sad.

Reviewing my summary of the first three paragraphs, I’m tempted to make something religious out of it all—trees, snakes, gardens, and the like—but I don’t think that’s the gist. Or maybe it is the gist (Barthelme grew up Catholic). Is this a goof on the Eden thing? Humanity’s failure to be good stewards of the planet, etc. etc. etc.? I don’t know. Look, it’s a funny little story, read it.

43. “The Sergeant” (Amateurs, 1976)

“The Sergeant” reads like an oddity in Barthelme’s catalog—although not really, I guess, when that catalog is all oddity.

On one hand, “The Sergeant” is narrated in a seemingly-straightforward Hemingwayesque first-person I. This narrator is clearly based on a version of Barthelme. Barthelme served in the Korean War, but the real backdrop of “The Sergeant” is the Vietnam War–which was also the backdrop of much of Barthelme’s writing career (he arguably best addresses that folly in his 1968 story “The Indian Uprising,” which I’m still a ways from).

On the other hand, “The Sergeant” comes from the school of Kafka—it’s the bad dream we’ve all had, the nightmare repetitions of past duties we didn’t even sign up for. “The Sergeant” reads like a short blueprint for much of the Kafkaesque fiction that would follow it, including the labyrinths of Kazuo Ishiguro.

But Barthelme punctuates his nightmare-tale with a mythological touch: “Penelope!” cries the narrator, extending Barthelme’s anxiety riff into an ageless epic.

42. “I Bought a Little City” (Amateurs, 1976)

I Bought a Little City” is likely regarded as one of Barthelme’s greatest hits, possibly because it’s a more straightforward affair than his collages, pastiches, and oblique parodies. There’s a mean streak to this story about a rich man who buys Galveston, Texas. The story is about a lot things—control, desire, community, and creativity, maybe best summed up in two of its early lines: “What a nice little city, it suits me fine. It suited me fine so I started to change it.” People love to blow up their lives, but the asshole narrator citybuyer starts to blow up other people’s lives. He shoots six thousand dogs, for example. He humiliates a cop by making said cop buy him some fried chicken. He tries to steal another man’s wife, but it doesn’t work out. Maybe “I Bought a Little City” is about creative failures; maybe it’s a satire of capitalism. Or maybe it’s just another Barthelme goof.

Summary thoughts: Uh…the stories in Amateurs are generally better than those in Great Days. The weakest one here is “The Crisis,” from Great Days; the other stories feel more of a piece with each other. I enjoyed “The Sergeant” the most, but mostly because it has a different flavor from the other stories. “The School” is probably the best of the batch.

Going forward (in reverse): We continue backwards through the seventies, where we eventually hit (what I think might be a top-ten Barthelme hit) “Eugénie Grandet.”

Fight — Gely Korzhev

Fight, 1987 by Gely Korzhev (1925-2012)

Wallpaper — Mark Tennant

Wallpaper by Mark Tennant (b. 1950)