May 2007


(Written on Sunday, May 27)
Today I told my boss that I am quitting a month earlier than I had previously expected to leave. (In July I go fishing in Alaska for a month.) Now I am quitting after Tuesday. I am going to hunt morel mushrooms. And this time (for those of you who know me), I know where they are.

As of Wednesday I will be leaving my perfectly good (if not terribly lucrative) carpentry job for the chance to wander around in the woods in hopes of finding enough morels to pay off the rather substantial amount of work I recently had done on my car.

To be honest, the money is almost incidental. I would like to be able to pay off my credit card as soon as possible, yes. But more importantly, I want to get the hell away from all of you. Yes, you, the one minding your own business. I hate you.

But I shouldn’t, and if I wasn’t so caught up in the city life, I would not. As an outsider in the city, everyone is interesting, and anything can be redeemed. I can watch the masses go by and not want to light the sidewalk on fire. But I can’t live in it and enjoy it at the same time. So instead I’m going to go out in the woods and live in a tent, because after six months in the city I would rather eat oatmeal I made over a fire that I built by rubbing sticks together than drive through evening traffic one more goddamned time so I can eat a meal, do my laundry, read a book, go to bed, and pretend that I’m enjoying my life.

You can all enjoy your commutes. And learn to fucking merge.

Today I watched kids arriving at school; being dropped of by parents. Late elementary age kids. I watched fifteen feet of sidewalk where Civics and Tahoes were pulling up, kids climbing slowly out and tugging on backpacks. I was building knee braces for the decrepit million-dollar home I’m working to remodel. It was the blessed part of the morning when no one else had yet shown up, and I was ratcheting lag screws into place alone. To my right I could see the brick of the elementary school through two back yards, see the cars pull up and disappear into the rest of their commute.
I could only see any given child for a half dozen steps, but I saw the pattern. Muttered farewell to whatever parent was dropping them off that day. Walking with their heads down, shuffling pace. Not simply tired. Depressed. Every kid was walking into that school against their will. When I did see an excited kid it was always one of the youngest and only because they were caught up in some game they were playing before the bell; simple distractions.

Sometimes I think I’m the only one who hated every single day of my primary and secondary education. Maybe not.

What the fuck are we doing to our children?

I inadvertently took a long lunch today. My bosses drove off with my tools when they went to take their “luncheon meeting”. I bring my lunch, and rarely take even a half hour to eat it. But now I had an hour.
There is a shitty upscale coffeeshop just half a block from the job site. I thought that since I hadn’t had any coffee today anyway, I’d walk up and get a cup to go. So I could bring it back and…sit. Or pretend to work on something else, or enjoy the warm beautiful day, or whatever.
Got my coffee, started out the store and got snagged by a story in the NY Times (five days old) that was lying unattended at a table. I read the article and started out again, past the sunny picnic tables out front, and stopped. There were other people sitting out there, in the sun, eating their overpriced gelato and scones, talking crap about nothing. And I had the overwhelming urge to find a table of my own and sit with the paper.
Seems reasonable, normal. I like coffeeshops anyway, so the fact that I had this urge is not anything remarkable in and of itself, but what caught my attention was the tired voice in my head that said “I just want to sit here and feel human for a little while”. I used that word in my mind: human.

Now, sitting at a metal table in front of an expensively bad coffeeshop in a wealthy neighborhood is not an especially human thing to do. It is not what defines us as a species. Why would that make me feel human, when my job apparently does not? My job is neither beastly nor unreasonable. Yes, my shower water ran black for a few seconds tonight, but that was mostly because I was running power tools and because it’s an old house. It’s semi-skilled to skilled labor. Work of this nature is far more prevalent in our species than sitting in front of coffeeshops. So why do I need to take a coffee break from it to regain my humanity?

It could simply be a class bias buried deep in my subconsciousness. My parents were professors when I was little. Maybe my worldview excludes blue collar jobs as a reasonable and humane way to live. But I don’t really buy that, especially given what my father did for work after retiring from education, and given the types of jobs that I have pursued for the last several years. On a similar note, maybe this idea is an effect of the fact that I have been looking at graduate schools recently, and the juxtaposition of Yale doctoral programs and my carpenter’s helper job simply blew my mind about what is normal. But I don’t think that is it either, though it may be a piece.

I think the issue is that I don’t believe in the system we’re all living in. This nine-to-five, come home, work out, read a few pages before sleeping it off to do it again tomorrow bullshit. I don’t buy it. It isn’t a fit way to live, and I don’t think it matters if you’re a wealthy bigshot exec or that sketchy tweaker washing dishes in every sit-down restaurant in America. I don’t understand how you people do this shit every day for years on end. You live for the weekends and your puffed-up house parties, and every day eats another piece of your soul.

In the deep forests across the world, the empty deserts, the last open plains, and the few unmarketable spots left, people still live in small villages independent of the global corporation. When anthropologists manage to find these people and talk to them about their disappearing way of life, there is a word that they often use to differentiate themselves from the people around them who have been swallowed up by the outsiders: free.
In a world where they are viewed as living artifacts of a time gone by, those people call themselves free.

When were you able to call yourself free?

In all the time I have had a subscription to the New Yorker, I have never been caught up with it. I am one of those poor souls who must read everything that he is given. Even in an issue that I have no interest in, I always at least try to read the fiction entry.

This is unfortunate, as the fiction entry is often the weakest part. Many of the short stories they publish are toss offs by famous authors. This is not to say there are not gems from time to time, but in general my efforts to read the New Yorker’s fiction have not been rewarded.

But nobody I know gets the New Yorker for the fiction. They get it for the articles, honest. As I paged through one of the many backlogged issues, I started reading, and found myself unable to get past the style. Anyone who’s read more than a page of the New Yorker might not think about the style, but they know it. There are certain, often nationally known, writers who are often allowed to keep their own style. Sedaris never has to change his phrasing, but if you’ve read the reportage, and not the reminiscences, you might even be able to evoke the particular style of the New Yorker.

I’ve read a fair share of pages at this point, and I’ve come to think of it a certain way. It is the style of a reporter who never got over the desire to write a novel. When you read them, you feel like you and the reporter are on a deck somewhere, maybe with a julep in hand, as they describe their travels. The troubles of whatever far off country are incidental to the characters building and travelogue. This may be why so many of the New Yorker’s articles are about the famous dead.

I can never shake the feeling that I’m supposed to remember the name of whoever wrote their latest article about… oh, we’ll say Sarajevo. I’m supposed to be savoring the quince blossoms as much of the news, the writer’s ability to paint the scene. It feels like the news as a short story, which I’m sure is their intent.

One that particularly struck me happened a while ago. I still remember it, which should tell you something, as it was a profile of Abbas, who’s been stuck in a sink hole of terminal irrelevance for a while now. In this article, some six hundred words were used to profile a Palestinian fighter. These six hundred words lead into his quote, which was, I suppose, the reason he made it into the article. He was asked if he wanted to stop fighting. He said, “of course.”

The watery nature of this pseudo revelation, and the six hundred words that were used to prepare it, astounded me at the time. Had my last two minutes or so been wasted? Couldn’t that have been done in two sentences? Didn’t I already know that he would want to stop fighting, but on his terms?

These articles, when about something I’m interested in, are always entertaining enough. I still read them, but as I read them, I wonder if I wouldn’t be better off reading something meatier about the subject. There used to be a drive in middle America for self betterment. I don’t know that it’s exactly alive and well, or misdirected, or what, but I feel like the New Yorker is trying to promote that. Which is why it’s so frustrating to me when they seem to have articles that are more travelogue than history lesson and more anecdote than news. Often I walk away from the articles feeling like the lesson I was supposed to take away was: “They’re people, just like us.” With articles of the length they give out? I would hope it could go a little deeper.

After reading Colin’s posting regarding venues and how they can affect the kind of night you’re going to have at a show, I decided that throwing in my two cents on the fine art of having a blast no matter where you are or who’s on stage (and the attendant concerns accompanying pre- and post-concert time) would not be a bad way to kick off my first ever foray into the world of blogging. So from the top then…
1. Playing in front of the beat:
Whether it’s a show you’ve been looking forward to for months or a spontaneous decision to go absorb some local tunes tonight, there are ways to help ensure (or at least increase the odds) that you’re getting what you want from the event.
Get a list of your 20 or so favorite acts and keep an eye on their websites or Myspace pages to see if they’ll be in your town or reasonalby close by. The list will probably change as you figure out certain people aren’t that great live, or are only worth seeing in intimate venues, as you realize the new band that won’t get out of your CD player or Ipod is more important right now than an old favorite you’ve seen several times, etc. Obviously if they’re recording an album or the next tour isn’t in your region, there’s no need to check again for a while, but periodic updates will make certain you don’t miss a show you wanted to see. If the artist is touring near you but not in your town, you can always roadtrip (more on this later), but also check the listings frequently, as show can be added to tours fairly late in the game. (Case in point, I recently took a roadtrip to Chicago that was actually unneccessary, as the band added a show in Minneapolis after I’d already bought the Chicago tickets, thinking that was as close are they were going to be. I saw ’em both nights, and they were great, but gas money is a bitch these days.) Once you’ve spotted the show(s) coming up that you want to attend/can afford, but your tickets early. This will allow better choices if the venue has assigned seating, prevent you from missing the show because it sold out, and save the few extra bucks they usually charge at the door.
Alluding back to Colin’s article for a moment, before you type that Visa number into the ol’ Ticketmaster website, do a little research. If it’s a venue you’re unfamiliar with, check the website to get a feel for the place, and get feedback from anyone you know who may have seen a show there (or check “Howwastheshow.com or concert reviews from the local paper if available, which may provide a little insight into the space you’ll be occupying for a few hours.) Maybe the band you want to see is going to be no fun in that place, and you can wait for the next tour. If everything checks out venue-wise, think out the logistics: Do you need to drive, and how long a commute is that going to be; how much is parking; is there reliable public transportation you can use instead; do you need to cab it? Plan accordingly, and leave time for late cabbies, busses, traffic in general, etc. I realize that this is not always posssible, but if you have the luxury, use it.
Understandably, the situation differs slighty if you’re headed down to the local dive bar on a whim because you just read a review of some up-and-coming act, but the same general rules apply (exempting the ticket situation: you’re going to pay a cover for that band and several others. On the off chance that the rest of the acts are terrible, is is worth it?)

2. The Day Of . . .
A breif disocurse to be adhered to if applicable: Get plenty of sleep or drink plenty of coffee; trying to rock out if you’re exhausted can be tough. Whether it’s the local band or the national tour, get there early. There are a few reasons for this: You can stake out your territory early if it’s not an assigned-seating event, & the openers/other acts might be really good. I could rattle of a list of twenty great people I’ve discovered just by getting there early enough to see them and really digging it. If the opener sucks, you can always laugh about how bad they were afterwards, or use the time for trips to the bathroom, smoke breaks, or buying beer. Speaking of beer, I know not everyone neccessarily wants to be buzzed at a show, but if you want to indulge yourself in a little debauchery, a few helpful pointers: Pregame, pregame, pregame. Booze will be exhorbatantly more expensive once you’re in the door than if you pound a few in your living room ahead of time. Obviously, any other substance abuse should also be handled beforehand so you don’t end up with front row tickets to that great new band “Mugshot” or at the least a fine (it’s not likely, per se, but why risk it?). A caviat about the preceding senteces: DO NOT show up so messed up as to be apparent to everyone around you. I have seen people turned away at the door, tickets in hand, for being too wrecked. If you are going to put a good buzz on ahead of time, please travel safely. While you’re in line, don’t be that obnoxious idiot talking too loudly (the same people who inevitably try to get the “START THE SHOW, START THE SHOW!” chant going if the headliner is five minutes late coming on stage). Be courteous to the folks working the door and selling tickets, they put up with enough bullshit every night. A breif note on concert- going fashion: fuck it. Wear whatever you want, and ignore the pointed sneers from any hipsters or other morons, with two exceptions: Closed-toed shoes are always a good idea, unless you like your feet being sqooshed, and I’ve noticed that occasionally some fool will think it’s cute to grab a hat from your head if you’re wearing one and fling it towards the stage, not often, but I’ve seen it happen a few times. So maybe not so much with the headgear (up for debate), but definitely wear shoes, not sandals.
OK, so now you’re in the door. Go to the bathroom if you have to, or get a beer, but first: Stake your claim. Look around and figure out where you want to be (it really helps to go with friends wo can hold a spot for you if you absolutely have to move for some reason). Designate one person to go get beers or whatever for the group, and make sure everyone understands the concept of taking up slightly more space than they actually do to preserve your turf. Under no circumstances should this be done aggressively or rudely, that just makes everyone’s night a little worse, but do know how to hold your space. If you’re not in an ideal spot when the first band starts, don’t sweat it, set breaks are a great opportuniy to grab some more suitable real estate.
Behavior during the show: get into it, do your thing, dance, cheer, sing along, whatever strikes your fancy, but try not to do anyhting that will make the experience less enjoyable for those around you. (ie – stepping on toes, dancing outside your space, moving in such a way that the poor short girl two rows back can’t see for half the show. If you want good karma, as a matter of fact, spot a short person who might be having a tough time and let them stand in front of you if it will help. It won’t be detremental to your night, and it might make theirs.) If you do find yourself by one or a few people who are serioulsy fucking with your groove by being morons, you have a few options: move slightly away from them, try and ignore them, or confront them. If you must choose option three, be chill about it. If they get saucy with you, it’s probably better to move than keep dealing with a bad situation, or worse, get thrown out for fighting when some drunk jackass throws a punch because you had the audacity to ask him not to repeatedly elbow for a third time. No matter who you’re seeing, with very few exceptions, there will be some of these in every crowd. If you end up in close proximity, how you deal with it can make all the difference.
After the show, the options are yours: afterparties, bars, going home to crash. Whatever you do (and I don’t mean to sound like your nagging mom here) be safe. If this means leaving your car in a parking deck for the night or getting some grub and coffee to sober up, do it, you’ll be glad, and dno’t forget that all-important glass or two of water before bed, so you can be excited to relate the night to everyone and not hungover the next day.
A brief note on roadtrips: line up your crash spot ahead of time. If you have freinds in the area, be grateful. If not, try to scope a hotel within walking distance or a short cab ride from the venue.
On festivals: These can be the best times you have, but bring the right gear if you have to camp. and stock up on as many gallon jugs of water as you’re likely to need (plus food, smokes, booze and anything else, if you don’t want to pay out the yang for ’em, or be caught without, as many festivals won’t let you leave and re-enter).
If you’re going to be extra-ultra hardcore and follow a band on tour, all of the above applies, just on a broader timeline.
And there you have it. Enjoy, and rock on.

A few points have been brought up in the last few posts I’d like to expand on. Sorry for the length, and any weird formatting issues. I’m still getting the hang of this “blogging” thing.

First off, Ian made some really good points about the short story, back in his original post on Artless. I agree: short stories tend to be depressingly similar, and in part due to their length. Charles Baxter has a great essay that I think everyone in the world should read, in his book Burning down the House. The essay is called “Against Epiphanies.” Ever since James Joyce, the model of the short story has been one where the main character has some “realization” that changes his/her perspective. Joyce handles these moments subtly and well, because he’s an amazing writer. But over time, our society has latched onto the idea that short stories should provide some “useful insight” that we can package away. Barbara Kingsolver — who, despite the home-town pride factor, in that she lived in Tucson, Arizona, for many years, I have increasingly grown to loathe — has an introduction to her edition of “Best American Short Stories” in which she says that after every short story she read, she summarized what she had “learned” from the story, in a sentence. If the point was somehow uninteresting, or something she already knew, i.e., “alcoholism destroys families,” she dismissed the story.

I have many problems with this approach. For starters, most “lessons” in life are obvious, and even the most uninteresting subject matter — alcoholism destroys lives! — can be made vivid and amazing by a talented writer. And, it implies that the job of literature is to “teach you a life lesson” which I disagree with. Even were it true that the job of literature was to grant you some insight into life (which it isn’t), life is stupid and complicated. Most “insights,” most “epiphanies” that we are granted with — as Charles Baxter neatly points out — are either obvious, or dead wrong. Life lessons can be both stunningly trite — love is hard! — and incredibly difficult to accurately comprehend and convey in a work of art. And, as Ian points out, the very shortness of the short story makes it tempting to flatten and compress observations into simplified, uninteresting forms.

This, I would argue, however, is precisely why long, messy novels are worthwhile. I just wrote what is arguably the world’s worst paper on Chekhov, but in the course of my research, I ran across the work of a theater critic whose work I’ve used before, Francis Fergusson. His point is that writers like Shakespeare use multiple plots — think of all the love plots from As You Like It, or the weird sub-plots of Hamlet — to reflect around a central theme. So, your play is about “love,” and instead of one love plot that stands in for your idea of what love is like, you have, say, five love plots. And each love plot has characters from different social classes, and each love plot is different. So the play operates, not because any one of the plots is so amazing, but by “a vast and intricate web of analogies.” The audience makes connections between the different plots. Each plot illuminates a different aspect of love. The author doesn’t necessarily have to make the analogies explicit — that’s often clunky — but the audience can make their own connections. It allows for a more complex and multi-faceted whole.

So, the length and scope of a novel allows for this. Rather than having a small set of characters, one of whom comes to some aw-shucks revelation, you can have multiple characters, lots of plots. Different aspects that may or not seem at first to fit together, but they all illuminate central concerns and preoccupations. My hesitation over the novella, is the same concern I have over the short story. That short, streamlined effect can be a little too easy, lend itself a little too much to easy, reductive reading, i.e., Gatsby = America! Not to pick on Gatsby, because I do admire the book. But I do think one reason for its popularity is that you can read it in that simple, reductive way. I’m all for books and plays that illuminate life’s messy, complicated reality. And for that reason, big novels have a much chance of succeeding, because there’s literally more room to include all sorts of things, and all of these things add another perspective, keep you from reducing the point down to deceptively easy revelation.

Of course, I feel like I’m running perilously close to the mimetic fallacy, that just because life is “big” and “messy,” that novels should be big and messy. And that’s not true. I have to disagree with Colin on that — he says, of Underworld: “It is long, it is messy, it doesn’t always make linear sense. Neither did the second half of the 20th century, which is kind of the point.” Well, if you grant that, then if you’re writing about something that is boring — someone’s dull life, or dull job — it follows that it’s okay for your writing to be boring. And if you’re writing about someone who is shallow, your writing should be shallow. And if you’re writing about something impossible to completely understand — like, um, life — your writing should be impossible to understand. And all that is clearly not true. You can write coherent, readable prose about something that is complicated and non-linear. I don’t have any sort of problem with literature imposing an artificial structure on its subject matter, as long as it’s done in a subtle, artful way that is illuminating of life’s complexity.

One last word, on the investment of time. Aren’t you commiting to invest your time anytime you pick up a book? During my brief, unglorious career in publishing, this was drilled into my head many a time. You are not selling the book as object, really — the money, in many ways, isn’t the issue. Books can be expensive, but lots of things are more expensive. What you’re selling is the investment of time — the knowledge that, when someone buys a book, they’re devoting hours, days, or weeks to it. And you have to convince the audience that the time will be well spent. That investment of time is part of why we love the books we love so much and also explains why we feel so vehemently about the books we hate — you seriously expected me to devote hours and hours of time to this crap? So it’s really hard to draw the line. What’s a reasonable investment of time? An hour? Two hours? It depends on your life, your schedule, your preferences. But, it’s also why, I would argue, that writers can’t just raise their middle fingers at their potential audiences. If you pick up a book, you’re agreeing to devote a certain amount of time to it, in a thoughtful, considered way. So I think the authors’ part of that contract is to ensure — within their own vision and power — that the time is well spent, and for that reason books that seem to deliberately not give a damn about their readers can be particularly aggravating.

So, I guess I agree and disagree with both of you. How unhelpful of me. I do think writers need to be respectful of the investment of time readers put in, but, I happen to think big, messy novels are the best, and to me the most enjoyable, use of that time.

On a broader scale, while I sympathize somewhat with Ian’s complaint, I don’t think it holds water as anything more than reader-response criticism.

I might consider that more biting, had it not been preceded by a paragraph of almost pure reader-response criticism. Sure, there is the veneer argument, that longer immersion improves the art. Still, the core of the paragraph is that you were swept away in the novel, as I was not. Fair enough. I never knew I had such lofty goals as to rise above reader response criticism, or that the response of the reader/listener/witness to an act of art had fallen so out of favor as to no longer be valid when expressed.

True, the artist does not have to consider me when they create art. If you want to think of modernism, or post-modernism, or some other movement, as freeing the artist so be it. Just as the artist is free, I am free to not like it.

This is all very interesting to me. I started out, over on my blog, thinking about how the novella was under used. I thought that I would write about the advantages that I thought it had, which were being passed up for other formats. That turned out to be a long post, so I decided to break it into three or four parts. Needing an example of a book that I thought did not justify its length, I poked Underworld. And here I find myself drawn into an argument about the book’s merit. I hated Underworld. I made that hate known. I had not realized that my disliking the book as a reader required some elaborate justification. I think it’s shit. It does not appeal to me. That might just be my reader-response, but it’s a strong one.

Still, while long novels, when sufficiently good, need no justification, I will take a moment to address some of what Colin brought up in his post.

Underworld is a beautiful book. It is long, it is messy, it doesn’t always make linear sense. Neither did the second half of the 20th century, which is kind of the point. With such a vast scope, it would be a tedious simplification to create a neat and tidy story line, or even twenty neat and tidy story lines. Forty-six years of American History do not distill peacefully, nor should they. If you want to narrate the postmodernization of American culture, an 800 page sensory assault is damned good way to go about it. To present such an event as shorter novel or a collection of affiliated short stories misses the point. Yes, reading Underworld is a huge demand on your time, but it cannot be anything else. The subject matter is completely interdependent. Each element of the novel illuminates each other element, and without all of the lights, you miss what’s happening. Individually, each character and story is a small, well crafted glimmer. When they’re crammed together, you see the explosion at hand.

No, 46 years does not distill peacefully. I wouldn’t expect it to. Why? Because 800 pages is a tiny frame in which to fit 46 years. Underworld can’t do it. Even with all the stuff thrown in, it can’t do it. 46 years of America is simply too vast. Additionally, if you are going to say that the novel depicts the postmodernization of American, I’d like you to tell me what you think that post modernism is. In trying to depict too much, I personally feel that he depicts nothing.

I also disagree that the subject matter is completely interdependent. The graffiti artist has no bearing on the man who watches the atomic bomb get dropped, unless you are willing to accept “they are all American” as a sufficient argument in considering them all interdependent. There are themes, true, but portions of the novel interact with some other portions and not with others. As such, I don’t think that large swaths of the novel illuminate each other any more than The Great Gatsby illuminates The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. In fact, despite being different books, those two illuminate each other more than some parts of Underworld illuminate other parts of Underworld. Why? Because they share thematic material.

Authorial arrogance is forgivable when the product is beautiful or powerful or profound. But to ask that a work of art be cropped down or reformatted to fit your schedule is the arrogance of a critic, far harder to defend than that of an author.

All I can say to this is that I think you have totally missed the point of what I was trying to say when I started talking about the novella. I don’t know that I expressed it as well as I had initially intended, but it’s too late for that. Listen, all writing is arrogance. Wait for part two. This is not about me, as a “Critic,” coming at Underworld. The original point I was trying to make on my blog is that if a reader likes or dislikes a novella, they will have less time to think on it than with a long novel. Part of why I hate Underworld so much, was that I had plenty of time to savor how much I was hating it, as someone was egging me on about how I should finish it.

But to bring it back to the point I am (slowly, oh so very slowly) posting about on my blog…

You say that by being so long it created an emotional landscape within you that interacts with your daily life. Has no piece of writing with a shorter duration had a similar effect? A work does not need to 800 pages to have that effect, thought some can be that long and have it. Why is this advantageous to the novella, instead of merely a neutral point for both novel and novella? That will be part two of my postings on the novella.

My apologies to the readers. Colin and I have been going around and around about Underworld for ages, and I should have just used some other long book, to avoid raising his hackles.