. . . Highsmith

. . .

Errata: It must be time for another Patricia Highsmith adaptation.... Casualty estimates for last month's Paddington train wreck were doubled thanks to passengers who hoped they'd be presumed dead and ran off to pursue a new identity, and to spouses of non-passengers who hoped that they could get good solid death certificates without benefit of corpse:

"We came across some very complicated relationships, and people not always being helpful," Deputy Police Superintendent Andy Trotter said.

. . .

In (guarded) praise of irony

A couple months back, a reviewer of that Dave Eggers book wrote something about how she'd never seen such emotional material treated ironically.

That's very sad (sad ha-ha, not sad strange), because the only possible excuse for irony is emotion, and too much of it. "The world is a comedy to those who think; a tragedy to those who feel"; and irony's all that's been left to the softhearted analytical human being since Socrates at the latest. That's why stupid irony is exactly the same thing as unfeeling irony.

:) I regretfully admit that there's plenty of stupid irony around these days, probably because irony is the easiest thing to fake, its "Oh, I didn't really mean that" an easy refuge for the cowardly fool.

But beware, brother, beware: to don a suit of armor when you're just planning to wash dishes or go shopping is to invite great expense. If not injury. If not both (e.g., "Seinfeld"). Use only as a last resort; believe me, you'll get to the last resort soon enough.

I also admit that at first (or at disgusted and exhausted) glance, irony seems utterly antithetical to art ("art" being best described as "No, I meant to do that").

The trick is to stand firmly behind your transparently hollow words and (except of course when evading legal action) cheerfully admit to fully believing each and every empty idiocy you've recorded.

If you can call that a trick.

For those who have been made self-conscious of hubris in the mere act of expression, irony is pert near unavoidable. Thus, most of the women writers on my shelves are masters of the form in all its moods, from Behn and Austen through Bowles and Barnes to Russ and Fowler, criminy, Brontë & Brontë & Brontë & Olive Moore & Patricia Highsmith & Flannery O'Connor & Edith Wharton, it gets kind of creepy, doesn't it? Thus also the tactic's popularity with such resigned-to-failure types as Stendhal and Flaubert, Romantic rapscallions like Byron and Pushkin, and most sane twenty-somethings.

Here, for example, we actually witness the most beautiful of Nature's tender miracles, the birth of an ironist:

"It is wonderful -- stupendous to consider, how a man who in his own mind is cool, witty, unaffected and high-toned, will disgust and mortify himself by every word he utters or act he does, when he steps out of his skin defenses." -- Henry Adams, age 25
So don't let anyone tell you that irony isn't hip anymore. It's as hip as it ever was.

. . .

Collage by Christina La Sala
Special Anniversary Narcissism Week! (concluded): Rooms for Improvement

Over the past year, I finished a long essay, collaborated on a short film, wrote some letters, and made a living. But mostly it's been Hotsy Totsy.

Over the next couple, it won't be too big a surprise if I finish some other essays I've been promising for years (on Patricia Highsmith, on Jean Eustache...) or months (on Barbara Comyns, on Karen Joy Fowler...), or even something unexpected. And I better make a living. But mostly I expect it to be Hotsy Totsy.

Well, if this is gonna be my standard watering hole, I got some suggestions to make to the proprietor, if he can rouse himself up from behind that 1.5L jug of Wild Turkey for a moment....

. . .

Doug Asherman queries: "Here's something probably no one cares about, there a conspiracy to hide all the good music from us? And the good books? Are people in the arts laughing at us for buying their crap? And if so, what can we do about it?"


Disclaimer: Ray Davis is a paid contributor to The Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors.
Despite my familiarity with Salon, I was surprised by the Reader's Guide. It's like stooping to pick up what looks like an ordinary mediocre valise only to find that it's been packed full of mediocre lead bricks. According to the official mission statement, "We decided to let our contributors' enthusiasm and curiosity be our guides." These guides would seem to share one enthusiasm (the New York Times Book Review), one curiosity (what's on the front page of the New York Times Book Review?), and one path (to the trade paperback table at Borders).

I'm hardly a specialist in late-twentieth-century fiction, but if I'd wanted to provide a service to readers I would've found room for Joanna Russ, Patricia Highsmith, Chester Himes, Carol Emshwiller, Jack Womack, Bob Gluck, Barbara Comyns, Thomas Disch, Alexander Trocchi, Wendy Walker, M. John Harrison, Pat Califia, John Crowley, would've asked someone to tell me more about Patrick O'Brian and Dorothy Dunnett....

In fact the book includes only two authors that really matter to me: Karen Joy Fowler (given a short entry) and Samuel R. Delany (a short entry). Broadening my selection to writers I merely respect would add Elmore Leonard (a short entry) and Toni Morrison (a long entry, because she publishes in the mainstream genre) to the overlap.

And it's not because I haven't heard of the book's choices, which are beautifully (if unintentionally) parodied by John Updike's inset guide to "Timeless Novels about Loving," apparently repurposed from TV Guide:
"Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert - A young bourgeois wife seeks spiritual and sexual fulfillment away from the marital bed and runs grievously into debt."

"The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne - Among the Puritan pioneers of Boston, a promising clergyman falls afoul of a dark-haired protofeminist and her wizardly older husband."

Yeah, my list is idiosyncratic. An idiosyncratic list is what you'd expect to get from a serious pleasure reader. Whereas the Guide is what you'd expect to get from a serious follower of publicity.

The depersonalized author selection ensembles beautifully with the reviewers' khaki prose. Dumbed down for ease of swallowing, it's the house style of virtually every free weekly paper: "authority" and "irreverence" and "wittiness" depilated of information or personality or humor. Journalistic blatherers used to flatter their readership by pretending it was full of good taste and morality while somehow simultaneously dumb as a stump. Nowadays the readership's still dumb as a stump yet somehow full of detached ironic wit.

Thus it makes sense that the only writer given full stylistic rein is "Pagliacci Dave" Eggers, who ends his celebrity roast of Kurt Vonnegut:

"So. Vonnegut is good. If you like books, and like to read them even if they are easy to read and frequently funny, you will like the work of Kurt Vonnegut, a writer. Also: He has a moustache."
Robert Benchley, move over! ... Or roll over. Do something, man! ... Guess he's dead.
Even John Clute, one of the most eccentric stylists ever to write a review, is sanded down to transparency here. Which is extra sad, since his argument against the tyranny of the "mainstream literary" genre lances so precisely the core of this book. Restricting yourself to mainstream fiction in the late twentieth century is like restricting yourself to heroic tragedy after 1650. The mainstream's just not where good writing is being done. Unless you crave watery flavorless writing.
How did this awful thing happen? One clue may be found in the opening of the entry for Angela Carter:
"Carter enjoyed little renown during her life, but after her death...."
"Little renown"? Say what? Angela Carter? The only way I can make sense of this is to translate it as "I wasn't assigned Carter in high school and I didn't read the New York Review of Books back then, but after I graduated...." An editor should've caught the gaffe, but since an editor wrote it, it was probably immune.
Someone on the staff did make time, though, to reduce my already undistinguished sentence:
"An early devotee of poststructuralist and feminist theory, Delany in 1979 began Return to Nevèrÿon, an archeological fantasy series that was to occupy him on and off through the 1980s."
to complete nonsense by deleting "in 1979." Maybe someone in the publishing business could clear this up for me: Are copyeditors paid more for adding lots of mistakes to a manuscript, like programmers whose productivity is measured by lines-of-code? Or do they fuck things up out of sheer gotta-leave-my-mark egotism, like programmers who work nights and weekends?
Another clue: from what I can gather, my topic was originally assigned to a friend of the editors who decided only when the deadline was nigh that it was too hard to finish the research. These aren't enthusiasts trying to communicate their enthusiams: they're a clique trying to act like grown-ups.

From the mission statement:
"We encouraged our contributors to think of you, the reader, as an intelligent, interested friend or relative who'd just asked, 'So tell me about John Updike. What are his books like?'"
I find it unlikely that your auntie would be asking you such a thing unless she was checking how well you'd learned your lessons.
What we got here is not just smugness, but downright noisy celebration of shared limited knowledge. It's like that guy in the museum painstakingly explaining every perfectly obvious thing to his wife. It's like my geeky friends parroting TV shows. It's what they teach you to do in school. And it's what makes a successful journalism career. critics are they who seek to enjoy, without incurring the Immense Debtorship for, a thought thunk.

See Also: Anyone who enjoys this crap should probably seek out the opinions of more journalists. Those intrigued by my crackpot theories can find them expressed more calmly in a 1998 response to Jonathan Lethem.

Ray Davis will be appearing with other contributors to The Readers Guide to Contemporary Authors at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco, Thursday, September 14, 7:30pm.

. . .

Make the voices stop

At a similar literary salon about, oh, maybe seven or eight years ago, the favorite first lines game was played, and I quickly realized that I didn't have any.

Partly that's because so much of my favorite writing occurred before the late-twentieth-century vogue for hooky opening sentences; partly it's because I dislike that vogue, which will seem as eccentically simplistic to future readers as an earlier era's focus on moments of moral sublimity seems to us. Grabbing the reader by her arm and yanking seems a rude way to initiate a conversation, and when I remember particularly enthralling beginnings, I remember their structural effects rather than the wording of sentence one: the early and peculiar disappearance of Madame Bovary's initial narrator, for example. (Back at that salon, the only opening line I could recall right off was a condensed version of the Bovary gambit, as played by Beckett in Mercier and Camier: "The journey of Mercier and Camier is one I can tell, if I will, for I was with them all the time." The rest of the book being I-less.)

On the other extremity, I'm a sucker for endings that snap close with a satisfying click, and I recall (and re-read) a good many last lines, with special fondness for those whose persistent startle ripples backward through the entire work, restructuring it retrospectively into something far richer than one had even dared to hope for as one kicked joyfully up surfacewards holding one's perfectly timed-to-the-last-page breath.

(Oddly, few of the examples I'm about to offer really count as "spoilers": to understand their defiance of expectations, one must have developed those expectations in the first place. The truly itchy can feel free to request story-wrecking explanations from me.)

Such an ending is more likely to speed the traveller on with a slamming of the door than with a gentle swinging to, treating readerly expectations so aggressively that they could almost be called rebuttals to their own books. (Ulysses is one such rebuff after another.) Closure is, after and above all, a refusal of further story.

Trouble no quiet, kind heart; leave sunny imaginations hope. Let it be theirs to conceive the delight of joy born again fresh out of great terror, the rapture of rescue from peril, the wondrous reprieve from dread, the fruition of return. Let them picture union and a happy succeeding life.

Madame Beck prospered all the days of her life; so did Père Silas; Madame Walravens fulfilled her ninetieth year before she died. Farewell.

"That was the happiest time we ever had," said Frédéric.

"Yes, perhaps you're right. That was the happiest time we ever had," said Deslauriers.

I remember them all with such happiness.
I should certainly never again, on the spot, quite hang together, even though it wasn't really that I hadn't three times her method. What I too fatally lacked was her tone.
"That may be," Nora said, "but it's all pretty unsatisfactory."
He bent to pick it up, then stopped. Don't touch it, he thought, don't touch it.
[The first remains the most chill-enducing and daringly experimental ending I've ever read, as befits Charlotte Brontë's Villette, the pinnacle, in English literature, of characterization through narrative voice: The plot is resolved in the imperative! or, more accurately, via the narrator's very use of the imperative! Aided by the unemphasized selectivity of her seemingly conventional last paragraph wrap-up! (I think we can agree that exclamation marks are called for here, given the tightrope-acrobat precision of the performance.)

The second concludes Flaubert's most brilliant closing movement: that of the infinitely self-undermining Sentimental Education -- whose influence can be clearly seen in my third entry, from M. John Harrison's The Course of the Heart, and perhaps also in Mavis Gallant's "The Moslem Wife" (as cited in Eclogues).

Next, and speaking of characterization through narrative voice, the befuddled detective of Henry James's The Sacred Fount finally manages to reach a conclusion. Fifth is Dashiell Hammett's last word on the murder mystery genre (or perhaps on fiction in general) in The Thin Man, and lastly Patricia Highsmith's The Cry of the Owl abruptly becomes non-Highsmithian -- and freezes.]

Some end with a flourished signature:

And by what I have written in this document you will see, won't you, that I have obeyed her?
And the twelfth stroke of midnight sounded; the twelfth stroke of midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-eight.
Having seen this time what I needed to see, I started writing; and in time wrote all that you have read.
"You and Capablanca," I said.
[Janet Frame's Faces in the Water throws mental health into our eyes like vitriol; Virginia Woolf's Orlando shoots its arrows of desire right through the temporal barrier; Jack Womack's Going, Going, Gone goes home; Raymond Chandler's The High Window gives everyone a fucking break.]
Some with a gleeful or furious or heartbreaking -- but perfectly definite -- denial of closure:

That is said nowadays by the most modern of the physicists. If that is true, then that is how it is with Pooch and with Carmen and with all the others.
I'd always felt the future held wonderful things for me. I'd never quite caught up with it, but quite soon I would. I felt sure I hadn't long to wait.
Something further may follow of this Masquerade.
Ever after. I promise. Now close your eyes.
[Carol Emshwiller's Carmen Dog; Barbara Comyns's Mr Fox; Herman Melville's The Confidence Man; and the devastating final sentence of John Crowley's Engine Summer, whose subject (in several senses) might be said to be the tragicomedy of incompletion.]
And some are simply, disturbingly or delightfully, accomplished:

"Nothing, Mamma. I was just thinking."

And, drawing a deep breath, he considered the faint whiff of scent that rose from his mother's corseted waist.

He ran this way and that, low down in his throat crying, and she grinning and crying with him; crying in shorter and shorter spaces, moving head to head, until she gave up, lying out, her hands beside her, her face turned and weeping; and the dog too gave up then, and lay down, his eyes bloodshot, his head flat along her knees.
The beautiful weather was compared with the Great Disappointment of '44, when Christ failed once again to appear to the Millerites.
[Robert Musil's Young Törless enters sentimental grad school; Djuna Barnes's Nightwood pays tribute to Aphrodite; Karen Joy Fowler's Sister Noon lights out for the hills.]

2015-06-21 : Guy Lionel Slingsby kindly directed my attention to this trimmer and more Twitter-friendly approach.

. . .

Josh Lukin joins our perplexity:

There has just *got* to be a story of the Lucy Clifford or E.T.A. Hoffman unheimlich school that does something with artificial hands, but damned if I can think of anything but J.M. Barrie, which would be quite a stretch to include . . . Southern's use of the image in Strangeglove, of course, has all kinds of post-Metropolis precendents among authors who can be classed with Southern as Black Humorists. West, as you note. Durrenmatt's The Visit. Highsmith's "The Great Cardhouse." And of course V., wherein at least two characters have that distinction.

Shelley Jackson would be the ideal person to ask about this, followed by the authors of Narrative Prosthesis.
For pre-Strangelove self-modifying crazy-ass scientists, we might also look into Bernard Wolfe's Limbo, but that doesn't help with my personal goal of finding a precursor to Metropolis. So far the closest I've come is Nuada, which is none too close. Maybe I should just get over it and admit that some Nazis had a flair with pulp.

By the way, those of you with access to the MLN should seek out Dr. Lukin's illuminating review of Dr. Larbalestier's The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction.

. . .

Sheepskins & Skin-the-Goat

One of the nice things about not dying young is instead of regretting all the things you never accomplished, you get to see other people accomplish them. Like, you can imagine my relief that Patricia Highsmith's reputation has advanced to the point that a critical biography is being written without me having to lift a finger. And the nicest thing about weblog memes (jargon for "dogpile on the topic") is that it takes less time for someone else to say what you're trying to figure out how to say.

Thus I've stayed on the sidelines of the world-wide town-gown rumble long enough that notorious gown-wearer Alex Golub beat me to the punch, and punched way better than I would've. (Besides being lazy, I'm a feeb.) What follows is merely supplemental:

I know of people who treat academia as a day job (the way I treat software engineering, say), but I haven't met many. Most of the academics and ex-academics I've befriended come in one of the following easily distinguished forms:

Both have the best of motivations (love) and both seem admirable characters. Both also seem intelligent enough to realize that equally admirable characters can have very different experiences and suffer very different outcomes. What's struck me most forcefully in my limited sample set is the overwhelming extent to which one's status as sheep or goat seems to have been determined by a single factor: the relationship with one's doctoral advisor.

That's not so much the case in the day-job world. A beginning software engineer may have a bad manager first time out and soldier badly on. But even aside from disillusionment with the Community of Learning, the power of the advisor is so absolute, and modifying a post-graduate study program is so difficult, and the amount of debt thrown down the school's maw (in the present USA, at any rate) is so horrifying, that a callous, narrow-minded, self-serving, deceptive, or simply incompetent advisor can do decades of damage to a life with astonishing ease.

For me, it's never been an issue. I'm with Harvard apostate Henry Adams: tying the collaborative role of teacher to the punitive role of judge drops us into a pit of corruption; associating the sacrifice of youth and money (nowadays more money than the youth is ever likely to see again) with bell curve competition elbows our brightest ideals into a drainage ditch. Undisciplined and openly hostile toward authority, I barely achieved a B. A. -- and that only for purposes of class mobility. I live for scholarship, but much of the research I've depended on and virtually all of the learning and teaching I've done were free of institutional ties. When I wish I could make a living by scholarship, it's like wishing I had fifty million dollars, or wishing I was ruled by the just. In short, I'm no academic.

But I depend on the academies for their libraries (and now, surprisingly enough, for my paycheck) and to supply my academic friends with worthwhile happy lives. So I wish the academies well. And in that spirit I offer the following advice:


  Dat GOD DAMN HAT, that SHIT FAKE WIZARD!! I been his aprentice over a year an he NEVER done a trick, he never taught me nothin' but ABUSE an PAIN! Advisor damage

. . .

Advertising Supplement

Jake Wilson resolves one old issue:

  I considered writing to you a couple of months ago when you were looking for sources of the Rotwang/Dr Strangelove archetype. I was going to suggest that one source might be the Poe tale The Man That Was Used Up, but then from your phrasing I wasn't sure if you'd already made that connection.
That damned phrasing stuff trips me up every time! I responded:

  That was, in fact, the grotesque that I vaguely thought might be Poe or (if post-Civil-War) Twain or even Crane. (When I browsed through Poe collections, I became distracted by "Maelzel's Chess-Player".)

And to balance things out, Jake Wilson introduces one new issue: Senses of Cinema No. 26, with excellent background on the Hong Kong woman warrior, a Stan Brakhage tribute appropriately split between formal and personal concerns, enticing overviews of Ned Kelly stories and Italian movies that I'd probably hate, a pointer to the near-future sf film None Shall Escape, and the usual much much more.

My other favorite web-based movie periodical, Bright Lights Film Journal, has also served up a fresh batch of fine reporting, reviews, and meditations. But would you think badly of me if I admitted that my favorite part was the Holly Woodlawn interview? 'Cause if you would, I admit nothing.

Elsewhere on the web, Dr. Justine Larbalestier has provided a preview of "A Buffy Confession," her spirited defense against (and equally spirited surrender to) nattering nay-Slayers. "For those who haven't seen the finale yet don't read the coda at the end."

And another of our favorite doctors, Josh Lukin, brings us the welcome news that paper-based periodical Paradoxa is finally unleashing FIFTIES FICTIONS: Chester Himes! Patricia Highsmith! E.C.! Richard Matheson! Samuel R. Delany! Judith Merril! People I don't even know! Get your order in early; you know how ephemeral paper-based periodicals are, and this looks like the best issue of Paradoxa yet. (I'd say "the best issue yet of any magazine ever," but I can't be sure till I track down a copy of that Vanity Fair with the picture of Tuesday Weld in the back. [Update: That Vanity Fair issue stunk.])

Yeah, I kid the academy (those nuts!), but when its component parts are given half a chance, the combination of publishing venues, deadlines, and job reviews can be mighty productive. Out here in the boonies, I've been blowing hot air about "doing something" on Highsmith for more than a dozen years; with sharp and decent folk like Lukin and Earl Jackson Jr. on the case, the world might live long enough to see some results.

. . .

The Blunderer (via GoryDetails)

What can be learned from Emmanuel Carrère's obtuse telling of a story that combines elements of Edith's Diary, This Sweet Sickness, A Suspension of Mercy, People Who Knock on the Door, and the Ripley novels?

A renewed appreciation of Patricia Highsmith's maligned, malignant prose.

That amour-propre is the enemy of artifact.

That introspection with one eye kept on the public is unlikely to lead anywhere.

That human opacity is not clarified by polish.

Not even spray-on Lemon Pledge.

. . .

All Harrows Even

Again and again Stanley Kubrick glimpsed real horror only to hide it behind catastrophe. (Don't look at its eyes.)

The Shining's church-basement Haunted House props and final popsicle mean nothing. The movie's real horror is how easily the madman we see at the beginning of the film is accepted as a normal husband and father, and how little the perks and pose of artistry require the production of art. The real horror is the certain existence of The Shining 2, The Shining 3, 4, 5, ...

The horror is that Jack D. Ripper retains command.

The horror is that Humbert Humbert never met Claire Quilty.

This is one reason my favorite Kubrick movie is Barry Lyndon. It seems to live in the same world we do, where our actions may or may not have consequences but at any rate remain inconsequential.

This is also one reason I like Patricia Highsmith. There's Ripley, obviously enough, but even scarier the pleasant tourists of Those Who Walk Away:

But it was the fact that Inez knew which fascinated Ray as he watched her laughing and talking, waving a hand gracefully. She might think him dead, murdered by Coleman, but it was not influencing her manner at luncheon. Ray found this fact absorbing. Coleman looked so pleased with himself, as if he had done the right thing, something commendable, something at any rate for which he would never have to apologize to anyone. In a way, it was as if the whole group, Antonio also if he knew, accepted his disappearance, maybe his murder, as no more than fitting.
The horror is we tug at the latex mask and nothing happens.

. . .

The Launderer's Hand

Continuing the discussion:

As has been pointed out many times before, "genre" is not a simple compound, or even a clear formula, and its assorted aspects of publishing, writing, and reading are only loosely interdependent. Some writing, it's true, affirms generic coherency, snug and compact in a neatly labeled bundle. But much of what I'm drawn to seems badly wrapped, corners rubbing against frays and duct tape.

It always comes marked, however. No matter how much writer or reader idealizes invention from whole cloth, there'll be some natural discoloring, someone to see a pattern, and someone to apply a dye. Even the launderer's hand grows red with wringing.

To drop the metaphors:

  1. My favorite writing is sui generis.
  2. It was (and is) all published (more or less antagonistically) within a generic context.
  3. Assuming that one particular genre has special access to the sui generis greatly reduces the chance of actually finding it.

Which is why, as I wrote earlier, plowing cover-to-cover through some 19th century volumes of Blackwood's or Harper's, or High-Modernist-era New York Times book reviews or High-Hollywood-era movie reviews, would be salutary for most English and creative writing majors. Someone who refused to look at smut would have missed Lolita (fittingly, Nabokov himself first received Ulysses as an exemplar of smuttiness); someone who refused to look at sea stories (or flop gothics) would have missed Melville; someone who refused to look at cornpone humor would have missed Twain; and so on. And someone who refused to read academically canonized writing would miss all the same books now. For we who love to be astonished, it's worth attempting to read Hammett's and Thompson's (or Fitzgerald's and Faulkner's) prose the same way whether behind pulp covers or a Library of America dustjacket.

To take a limit case, there are (and have been) an astonishing number of readers who treat everything written by women as its own genre, resulting in a comedy of re-interpretation when misattributions are corrected and as the purported "genre" is denigrated or celebrated.

All this from publishers and readers. For a writer, genre may considered a conversational context, with one's social circle not necessarily restricted to one's neighbors, or even to the living. Since the literary mainstream's "discovery" of Patricia Highsmith began, I've seen a number of bemused references to the influence of Henry James, but this isn't an unusual phenomenon. The work itself is always more (or less, if truly "generic" work) than whatever genre it's in.

Carol Emshwiller, John Crowley, Karen Joy Fowler, Jack Womack, and Kelly Link write the sui generis they write and publish in whatever genre welcomes (or allows) them. But a contemporary may find it useful to learn that they all began publishing within the context of the science fiction genre, whether they themselves started as genre readers or not. And although I seek out Dalkey Archive and Sun & Moon Press spines in the bookstores, I enjoy knowing that the past decade of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction has shown more lively variety than any university-sponsored or trust-funded fiction journal.


Lucius Shephard also

God, yes. There are, oh, let's not start feeling guilty about not mentioning M. John Harrison, there are lots more. And then all the great writers who are publishing mysteries, thrillers, romances, Y/As, and including, sure, the literary mainstream and the poetry presses, but all of them, now ignored or long forgotten or even deservedly noticed, should get more than just a for instance, and I just meant for instance.

A welcome update, fourteen years later, from Josh Lukin:

Well you know my fave bemused reference to the influence of Henry James . . . although I'm sure Baldwin's Jamesianity too incurred some bemusement (to say the least) in his day, of the "'Notes of a Native Son'? What does this guy think he is?" sort (I don't at the moment have the wherewithal to turn to my Marcus Klein and Maxwell Geismar and Irving Howe and see if that was among their beefs).

I've been reading some James stories and am struck by their reliance on Ideas (pace T.S. Eliot). And I mean Ideas in the way SF writers mean Ideas: premises that one can quickly pitch to an editor (or to a writer, if one is that kind of editor I did have a pair of cats named Horace* and Campbell). It's an unoriginal insight that post-Chekhovian litfic doesn't make for good log lines the way that older stuff does; but I wonder whether pitchability has an economic origin or not: did Maupassant**, whom James might have gotten it from, write for magazine editors?

*Horace is still with us, but he doesn't like me to read the New York Edition. He will plop himself on it or gently close it or try to eat "Daisy Miller." I had to get hold of the first book editions of the stories so he'd leave me alone.

**Did anybody else pan their influences as interestingly as James? Not Wilde, not Nabokov, not Alan Moore . . . the list isn't as long as Harold Bloom led me to believe . . .

. . .

The Sport Parade (1932)

Leonard Maltin mentions the lame story, the flashy direction, and Robert Benchley's brilliant screen debut, not looking as puffy-fishlike-thing-on-the-beach as he would a few years later but already blatantly inserted, as America's worst color commentator ("And it should be a great Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth game today at Yale Stadium, here in Cambridge, Massachusetts...").

True, true, all true. But it says something probably not worth saying about heterosexual hegemony and the all-male capsule review business that unmentioned goes the most eyeboggling aspect of the movie, young pre-Code Joel McCrea. I always accepted on faith that this sullen, stubborn, humorless, not-too-bright character was sexually attractive, but I never really understood why till I saw him with no clothes on.

OK, he's not completely nude on screen. But I gotta say if Jean Harlow or Myrna Loy had spent a sizable portion of a movie greased up and wearing only tighty-whities, Leonard Maltin sure as hell would've found it fit to mention.

Plus: "Skeets" Gallagher!


Ray Davis writes:
Speaking of het. heg., last night I dreamt I visited Patricia Highsmith's home around dinnertime. She threatened to turn testy at times, but her adoring husband and son maintained a sort of stoic cheer through the distraction of baseball. Whether pitching, batting, or fielding, Highsmith was an astonishingly graceful player, and seemed to derive comfort from her own easy precision on the field.

Others dream differently:

All kidding aside, being Patricia Highsmith's son, the Patricia Highsmith of literature as opposed to of earth, and they are different, would be I think, less like The Natural and more than a little like being Betty Topper of Norco.

. . .

Reference Work, 1

For JL & JL

Two artists in dudgeons, one low, one high:

And every single person in the real world looks at this, and that's why we make our films the way we do. Because you don't have the freedom, you don't have the integrity, you have to remake everything we've done anyway. I go to see Martin Scorsese, and I say, Don't you think I should tell you about the lenses? And he says, What do you mean? And I said, Well, you're remaking my film, which is Infernal Affairs. Infernal Affairs was probably written in one week, we shot it in a month and you're going to remake it! Ha ha, good luck! What the fuck is this about? I mean, come on. In other words, if you read The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, then you'd actually have a very clear idea [laughs] about what's really happening in the U.S. right now. So what do we do? You tell me. [...] If Martin Scorsese can make a piece of shit called The Aviator and then go on to remake a Hong Kong film, don't you think he's lost the plot? Think it through. "I need my Oscar, I need my fucking Oscar!" Are you crazy? There's not a single person in the Oscar voting department who's under 65 years old. They don't even know how to get online. They have no idea what the real world is about. They have no visual experience anymore. They have preoccupations. So why the fuck would a great filmmaker need to suck the dick of the Academy with a piece of shit called The Aviator? And now he has to remake our film? I mean this is bullshit. This is total bullshit. I love Marty, I think he's a great person. And the other one is Tarantino. Oh yeah, let's appropriate everything. Are you lost? Yes, you are lost.
- Chris Doyle
Let's see, if we chide the writer who makes reference to low-brow material, who appropriates cultural material because appropriations are a bit like sampling in rap, really borderline plagiarism, everyone knows this we'll have to roll back to T.S. Eliot. Oops, we have to throw Eliot on the scrap heap, too apparently he risked some high-low mixing, and some appropriations. Forget Joyce, of course. We'd better go even further back. Once you begin looking at the underlying premise a blanket attack on the methods that modernism uncovered the kind of bogus nostalgia for a pure, as opposed to an impure, literature, what you really discover is a discomfort with literature itself. [...] It's not about reading. That's the problem. It really is about I'm repeating myself class anxiety. Once you have an eye for this you spot it in odd places. I read a review in Book Forum where a critic, quite incidentally, in attacking Michel Houellebecq, said in an aside, "But then again, the French regard Hitchcock as art." Well, now, wait a minute! These battles were fought and won. These victories were decisive ones, fifty years ago. There's no rolling that back. Hitchcock is art. So if you pin Hitchcock's scalp to your belt: "Not only have I seen through Michel Houellebecq, the charlatan, but in fact I'm going to tell you that the auturists were wrong and Hitchcock is low-brow and unsavory," you've discredited yourself so absolutely that you deserve to read nothing but Trollope for the rest of your life.
- Jonathan Lethem

OK, first, Trollope worked a day job for the fucking post office, so let's leave Trollope out of this fight.

Otherwise, it's a fight I felt like starting myself when I read this shallow attack on shallowness two years ago. (Why didn't I? Well, I work a day job, see....) For John Leonard, the difference between profundity and immaturity comes down to name-dropping:

Is it so unreasonable to want to know more of what he thinks about Julio Cortázar and less of how he feels about Obi-Wan Kenobi? [...] Superpowers are not what magic realism was about in Bulgakov, Kobo Abe, Salman Rushdie, or the Latin American flying carpets. That Michael Chabon and Paul Auster have gone graphic, that one Jonathan, Lethem, writes on and on about John Ford, while another Jonathan, Franzen, writes on and on about "Peanuts," even as Rick Moody confides to the Times Book Review that "comics are currently better at the sociology of the intimate gesture than literary fiction is," may just mean that the slick magazines with the scratch and sniff ads for vodka and opium [sic] are willing to pay a bundle for bombast about ephemera.

This approaches J. Jonah Jameson levels of wrong-headedness. As if Ulysses would've been improved by more of Lohengrin and less of "The Low-Backed Car". As if John Leonard ever actually took time to honor Alfred Bester for referencing Joyce or Patricia Highsmith for referencing James and Camus.

He asks me, "Do you care how many times I have seen The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or what's going on in my head while I watch Sara Evans sing 'Suds in the Bucket' on the country music cable channel?" And I answer: "No more than I care what's going on in your head while you watch Carol Burnett. I don't even care what you think about books. Moreover, if you were a movie critic or a music critic, I still wouldn't care about your renting a Demy video or your pseudo-ironic celebrations of Evans but you'd tell me all the same. What matters in our relationship isn't whether I care; all that matters is what the NYRB and New York Magazine will publish."

In Leonard's horror at public lapses of taste, this professional book-and-televison critic failed to notice that his subject is not a professional critic of anything and The Disappointment Artist is not a collection of criticism: it's a linked collection of autobiographical essays whose hooks happen to be American cultural artifacts. Lethem could hardly have been more explicit about it. In his long tribute to the The Searchers, the "critical" argument is confined to two paragraphs terminated by the sentence "Snore."

Sure, some generic ambiguity exists: there's that strain of criticism-as-New-Journalism which was domesticated down from mutants like Meltzer and Bangs into the cage-raised free weekly strains. But those conventions presume a like-minded community, whereas Lethem peddles his wares to a middlebrow camp unlikely to have any interest in his ostensible topics. Therefore the focus stays on Lethem-as-character.

So let's imagine our successful young novelist writing a similar autobiographical essay about reading Kafka or Cortázar:

"And suddenly I realized: I write fiction too. Just like him."

Yeah, there's news.

Equally newsworthy:

"Professional pundit publishes asinine remarks; bloggers rant."

But god damn it, I can't seem to let it rest at that. What irks me is the feeling that I share some aspect of some response with Leonard and, in a different way, or a different aspect, with Lethem, too. And again, Lethem's admirably blatant about it: he put Disappointment right there in the title for us.

... to be continued ...


Even if you don't care for my stuff, I recommend this essay by tomemos which starts from Leonard but goes in a very different direction.

Can't speak for Leonard but my celebrations of Evans are strickly appreciations of artistry.

My guess was that Leonard admired Evans but threw "the country music cable channel" in for distancing thus the "pseudo-" of his irony.

. . .

"Thea's main objective in life seemed to be to make her contemporaries feel awful."

Since I'm a long-time champion of Patricia Highsmith, my friends have naturally asked me what I thought of the new biography. Well, when I gave up the idle fantasy of writing a critical biography I also seemed to lose interest in reading one, and so I haven't read it. But of the opinions formulated by people who have, I commend with pleasure Jonathan Lethem's, and would only add to his suggestions two novels of particular import to biography readers: the alternate-history life-of-Highsmith Edith's Diary, dedicated to the unlikely proposition that Things Could Be Worse, and Those Who Walk Away, which narrates the healing powers and jarringly hard limits of empathy in a way and in settings that Henry James might recognize without quite endorsing.


Dave Haan differs:

Betty Noir's not my thang, but it seems a shame to overlook the Sunday Times' appreciation in its lit-quotes of the year, under the VS Naipaul award for most repellent author:

"[Patricia Highsmith] kept 300 snails as pets. She drank a quart of gin a day. She considered robbery worse than murder. She left the United States to live in Europe because of what she called 'the Negro problem' by which she did not mean discrimination against Negroes, but the civil rights movement that had Negroes demanding their rights. A houseguest once left her window open; she threw a dead rat inside. She took tips left on restaurant tables. She'd drive 60 miles to get a cheaper spaghetti dinner. She called Hitler's extermination policy a 'semicaust' because only half the world's Jews died."

The rest of Kornbluth's take

and Joan Schenkar has a couple items up there as well.

Oh, and for heaven's sakes how did I leave The Price of Salt out of my additional recommendations "of particular import to biography readers"?

. . .

Wanna be a member? Wanna be a member?

Obama's crack economic team never seriously considered breaking up too-big-to-fail financial institutions, or otherwise slowing redistribution of wealth to their gambling joints, because (I quote from memory) that would've interfered with the only truly successful business America still boasted. Which, besides being a fine adaptation of "What drinking problem? I have plenty to drink," made me seriously consider a recent statement of my own.

The delusions of a Tom Ripley, a David Brent, a [NAME REDACTED], or a [NAME REDACTED] sometimes seem dismayingly familiar to me and my neurotic loved ones. But our grasp of them loosens in a tinnitus of second thoughts; we coil and recoil, we drop them, or anyway we try to drop them. We aren't highly motivated goal-driven visionaries. Highsmith's good at showing the difference between throwing oneself in and being pushed: Therese Belivet isn't a sociopath; she's just in love. Clarence Duhamell isn't a sociopath; he just chose the wrong career.

In a way, then, it's true that success depends on desire: not success at a job, but in a career. You can only gain entry to a community of sociopaths by wanting it bad enough. Instilling that desire is what basic training and analyst training programs and graduate school and Bimbo's initiation and Philip Carter's incarceration are all about. And within that community theater, you face notoriously little chance of "failure" no matter how poorly we outside the ranks might judge your performance. Your performance is not directed at us.


Josh Lukin related to John Shade's mother? Yrs, Dr Chas Kinbote (per Shade, "author of a remarkable book on surnames")

I'm better with elective affinity than with genealogy, and so I'll just confirm that Lukin's essay (linked to above, somewhere, somehow) really is worth a call to your local pirate (arrh).

. . .

Why do you make me hit you?

But if Pat's affinity for Jewish dentists was yet another example of the subversive Miss Highsmith turning an ordinary exchange upside down i.e., the "German-identified" Pat being "gassed" by "Jewish dentists" (an idea so offensive that it might actually have appealed to Pat) she never said so.
- Joan Schenkar,
The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith
Gee, how clever you are to know about things that never happened.
- Joanna Russ, The Female Man

Against my better judgment, I read Schenkar's long dreadful book for the same reason I read Juliet Barker's similarly vindictive The Brontës: its compilation of primary sources. But Barker is a more controlled writer (or maybe benefited from a harder-working editor), and her intolerance closely resembles that of her chosen villain, lending the affair a certain meta-piquancy.

Schenkar, on the other hand, only resembles her own telling. She calls Highsmith's prose awkward and flat-footed, and she ladles out an Irish stew of purple clunkers. She snickers at Highsmith's pretensions, and she routinely overreaches:

By 1977, when Edith's Diary was published, rye had not been produced in the United States for at least twenty years.

She descries Highsmith's compulsive disruptions, and she's so full of redundant snark that she can't wait till a quote is finished before telling us what to think:

But she was "quite unable to do any creative work, though in my house there is always quite enough else to do. The mental fear needs a thousand words to describe. [But Pat did not provide them. [And neither does Joan.]] It as though death is right there suddenly and yet one feels no pain, one is talking in a calm voice to friends & doctors."

Schenkar's starting position may not be far from uncannily unmoved and unmoving witnesses like Found in the Street's Natalia or Inez from Those Who Walk Away. Here, though, their silent treatment bursts into a grossly extended middle-school poison-pen letter: "We just thought you should know: we don't like you." The best I can say is it gives Highsmith's paranoia, misogyny, and resentment a more flattering context than I could've conjured on my own.


Highsmith scholar Josh Lukin:

"When Pat Highsmith gave life to Ripley, she was exposing the black backside of her country's Zeitgeist" is more than a purple clunker: it's Tom Friedman on weed.

And Josh follows up:

But you know what'd be helpful in maintaining your youthful figure? Her recenter reminiscences of Stanley Hyman and Shirley Jackson, complete with critical comments by their kids in the comments dept.

A relatively restrained and respectful performance. Wall Street Journal's blog must have an editor.

. . .

Josh Lukin, August 18 1968 - July 25 2019

... a man of infinite patience and compassion, awesome learning, immense honesty, and almost grating humility, he represents to me the peak of what a scholar can be.
- from "Acknowledgments" in "A Literature of Suspicion: Critiques of 1950s Ideals in the American Roman Noir," a dissertation by Joshua Benjamin Lukin, 2003

Dick Macksey was the role model Josh mentioned most often to me, with H. Bruce Franklin a close second. I suppose what makes us think of someone as a "role model" or a "mentor" rather than simply "admirable" is validation-by-example of an ethos we would like to share once we've been assured that it's possible. And for those who succeed, descriptions of one's role model can conveniently be repurposed by others as a self-portrait.

Josh successfully lived as if the greatest of scholarly virtues, the primary impetus and guide which could not be sacrificed to convenience or time, was generosity. I'm told there are few higher-education jobs more draining than repeated first-year composition classes in an un-Ivied urban university, but year after year he gave his all to students. Almost half the longer pieces in his publications CV consist of interviews with non-canonical authors (and Josh Lukin was the Ernest Haller of interviewers). One of his two book credits comes from editing a collection of next-to-forgotten work from a writer better known as a mathematician; for the other, he edited a collection of essays about undercelebrated writings from an undercelebrated age. If he'd only labored over some first-time-into-English translations, he would have bullseyed every bullet point on the "Valuable Scholarly Work Which Will Not Advance Your Career" slide.

The virtue of "generosity" covers a wide and sometimes conflicting range, and its expressions are shaped by opportunity and need. (To put it more bluntly, Josh Lukin could not have reached into his shelves and handed anyone a first edition copy of Tristram Shandy although he could and did provide a year's worth of very welcome Donald Westlake recommendations.) In Josh's scholarly home turf of American studies (most often non-mainstream fiction, most often mid-20th-century), his characteristic expression turned away from both a Hermeneutics of Suspicion directed at naive-yet-safely-canonical Literature and the quietist or martial celebration of received wisdom, to demonstrate a Hermeneutics of Recovery and Acknowledgment which let suspicious Literature handle the Suspicion.

More broadly, he worked (and played) to break through the gated solipsism of those who conform to the hegemony du jour and the solitary confinement of those whose experiences or very existence have been denied:

But the taking of sides is not always the point: some of [Chandler] Davis's stories and essays rely on poetic force to evoke the understanding that to put it in propositional form “This state of feeling, or sequence of feelings, is possible and even common.’ A criterion for artistry and for radicalism in such a tactic is whether the statement is necessary and unusual: the pedagogy of feeling to which we are subjected every day by the clichéd and conservative discourse around us does not need more literature to reinforce it. Andrea Hairston has written, “Repetition is meaning. What we hear endlessly, goes without saying—is learned.” We need the tools to unlearn it, or to find affirmation of what we rarely hear validated; but we aren’t blessed with authoritative guides or methods for determining where poetic truth appears, or what manifestations of poetically shared feeling “further our understanding of ourselves and our society.” We must fall back upon our own rational faculties and our own moral imagination, with curiosity and compassion fueling our drive to connect with others.
- "Afterword: Alternatives to Reverence" from It Walks in Beautry
What artists, educators, performers, and historians can do for such movements is establish connections and continuities. If the hegemonic discourse reproduces itself by telling people with dissenting ideas that they are ridiculous, unhip, criminal, isolated, or mad, then any indication that they might be reasonable, aware, just, sane, and possessed of views that are shared by other people or were validated in other eras can help to build courage and conviction. Documenting what happens when shame is used as a mode of social control, when men are limited to a small repertoire of stereotypical roles, and when class is conflated with personal worth, the Literature of Suspicion can tell a receptive reader that a life such as his has been noticed or that her own suspicions that the dominant order's claims are false have been shared.
- "A Literature of Suspicion: Critiques of 1950s Ideals in the American Roman Noir"
Although I will in the remainder of this essay speak of having recognized familiar experiences in literature, I actually tend to feel that the text has recognized me rather than the reverse. And in being so recognized, I get, paradoxically, assured that responding, or having responded, with shame (or indeed with other intense affects) to past or ongoing experiences may not in fact be shameful.
- "Science Fiction, Affect, and Crip Self-Invention Or, How Philip K. Dick Made Me Disabled"

To my suggestion that Josh go public with his particularly acute critique of a then-trendy bit of poisonous rhetoric:

But right now, getting X *more* talked-about seems to me to be as desirable as a fistula (Asking Delany for his thoughts on the guy was a strategy for getting more Delanyan thinking into the world, not more reflections on X per se). You know me --I wunna call attention to as-yet insufficiently celebrated scholarship (among which I count Hoberek's book) or promote the creation of critical work that circumnavigates the Usual Cliches. Or, you know, get more sleep.
- correspondence, 2005
What's at stake here for me is that I would kind of like to say "These authors I have interviewed provide us with tools to rebut, or see through, or assert our dignity in the face of, or ignore, the toxic fantasies of X, Y, and Z" 'cause one is supposed to have a theory as to what theme holds one's work together. I hope my argument ends up having advantages beyond the fact that I know about irony. I'll have to engage Landy's "Nation of Bovarys," I guess; but surely we all see our own insufficiencies and plunge into bovarysm in order to escape the condemnation which, deep in our consciousness, we are the first and perhaps the only ones to make.
- correspondence, 2011

* * *

Present-day curators of American higher education in America set high value on "generosity" among the donor class but otherwise maybe not so much, and the freshly doctorated Josh Lukin duly became a contingent employee with a teaching load which discouraged extended research, writing, or publisher stalking. Chronically short on time, and showing caution appropriate to the academic precariat (as well as caution appropriate to the reader of Patricia Highsmith), Josh reduced his weblog to un-Waybackable ash long ago, and kept his Facebook account on lockdown more often than not. His latter-day academic publications include book reviews, reference-book entries, and a few historically-informed pedagogically-slanted close readings. All of them excellent jobs; all of them informative, convincing, and true to his own values. At least one of the reference entries has won an impressive citation list in its own right.

But such material requires some fading-into-the-background, and few hold much of Lukin's distinctive voice.

Most obviously (and understandably) missing are the puns. Josh perceived a world of whirling nimbuses of potential pun, where a quiver of displacement might at any moment discharge a cackling flash too loud and bright to ignore.

Then there was his affection for a mostly-vanished mode of mid-century secular American Jewishness; in one phone conversation with Josh, I would hear more Yiddish than from my year in Brooklyn. Like other drops from approved diction into "down home" idioms, it played a tutoyer role, and as such sometimes made a guest appearance in his interviews.

Most crucially, his academic publications muted the unique virtue of his wit, which somehow contrived to be engagingly genial even when furious or despairing. When he stung, he left a sting worth attending. You might gather some notion from his Chandler Davis afterword, and "Science Fiction, Affect, and Crip Self-Invention," and, less formally, from his Aqueduct Press self-bio. Although his dissertation is officially unpublished and (like virtually all contemporary literary-studies dissertations) modularized for easy cannibalization, and has in fact been partly cannibalized, it also coheres and builds, which makes me suspect that extended Lukin may be the best Lukin.

For that reason, I've kept close and frustrated track of the book-length projects he's mentioned over the years: a collection of his "interviews with feminist authors"; "Noir Recognitions, a study of identity in the 1950s novels of Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, and Philip Dick"; and, most intriguingly, "an unpublished draft of a memoir (Urgency: Growing Up with Crohn’s Disease)." Maybe someday, someday... well, a fan-boy can dream, can't he?

* * *

The Josh Lukin I knew was deeper, wider, and funnier than the academically-published Dr. Joshua B. Lukin, but still not quite Josh complet. I know from hearsay that he, like me, loved to eat, loved face-to-face conversation, and exhibited a disconcerting tendency to burst into song (myself in chants which echo Michael Hordern's, Josh [I imagine] in a Melchiorisch heldentenor accompanied by Segovian guitar). But residing 2800 miles apart and on very different career tracks, we (and Ann Keefer, his partner in all things) met only once in the flesh (being flesh, we of course immediately dined), and the late hours of our phone calls discouraged outbursts which might startle sleepy cats.

Still, it was Josh Lukin enough to fill a satisfying portion of my life. Long after the bulk of free-and-direct discourse retreated from the spooky public sphere into Mark'n'Jack's ClickLike Clubhouse, he continued to engage with an uncredentialed unknown non-academic who (true to form) could not conceivably advance anyone's career a whit. For sixteen years, through mutually inflicted bafflements, bruisings, and boosts, he was my most reliable correspondent, and for sixteen years he instigated my most extended and educational phone calls, punctuated by his signature placeholder, "What, can, I, say...," intoned with the delighted perplexity of a sated gourmet faced by another platter of amuse-bouches. Despite being given the advantage of a four-hour time difference, I'm such an early-rising geezer I sometimes found myself unable to even take notes during the last part of these calls, and wished I'd asked permission to record them for later listening.

(Timmi Duchamp maintained an even longer and closer epistolary/telephonic friendship. I wonder how many more of us are out there?)

Josh always suffered from greater or even-greater health problems, and they worsened this year, interfering not only with his work but with his and Ann's preparations to relocate. In mid-July he phoned to tell me that diagnostic progress had finally been made and a biopsy had been scheduled, and he figured I might be able to say something more than "We will keep you in our thoughts and prayers." I did so; he did so; we enjoyed ourselves but grew fatigued, as a sleepy old guy and a mortally ill guy will. Before we hung up I asked him to phone me again next week with the results of his biopsy, then thoughtlessly added, "We'll be thinking of you." I quickly apologized for violating our contract, at which he just as quickly chortled, "Like Oscar Wilde said, heh, the only thing worse than being thought about is not being thought about."

I didn't hear back from him the next week but wasn't surprised no matter what course of treatment he was prescribed, he and Ann would also be busy with their move.

Early on Sunday morning, July 28, I saw an obituary for Richard Macksey in the Washington Post, and sent a short email to Josh expressing condolences and asking about the biopsy. Late on Sunday night, I realized it had been a while since I checked on Facebook inhabitants, briefly logged in, and found that Josh had died two nights before.

He would've mocked my sentimentality with relish (with mustard, even), but Josh meant the world to me I know he did because the ground beneath me vanished when I read the news and free-fall makes me clingy. I hope this Sondheim number is sardonic enough to pass muster (and the mustard) with his memory.

. . .

Contraction : 1973 1976

Thus further constraints need to be applied to attempt to separate useful information (to be retained) from noise (to be discarded). This will naturally translate to non-zero reconstruction error.
- "Stacked Denoising Autoencoders" by Pascal Vincent, Hugo Larochelle, Isabelle Lajoie, Yoshua Bengio, Pierre-Antoine Manzagol

Braymer C-4 High School offered no advanced placement classes and no foreign language instruction. (Although librarian Mary Margaret McAllister could've taught French, doing so would have forced the school to raise her salary.) The irresistibly caricaturable math teacher, Duane Clodfelter (affectionately called "Felter" after he forbade us to affectionately call him "Clod"), only rehashed what I'd already learned, but did so well enough to fetch yearly trophies from the state mathematics championship. (Yes, there was such a thing.) The English teacher's favorite works of literature were Mandingo and Gone with the Wind; most of the other teachers were far worse. Aside from one touch-typing course, formal education had come to an end and I was left to my own devices.

Devices were thin on the ground. The bulk of the school library was assembled at the turn of the century, as close to a heyday as Braymer ever got Artemus Ward and William Dean Howells; Thomson, Cowper, Whittier, and Longfellow although somehow one paperback of Leonard Cohen's pre-crooner verse had slunk in; I read the sauciest bits aloud to prove that Poetry Is Cool.

The nearest public library was in Chillicothe, population 9500, about forty minutes away, and I relied on my parents' occasional shopping trips to get there. They were usually willing to drop me off for an hour or more, though, the collection was surprisingly ambitious,1 and the person responsible, Ms. DesMarias, became a supportive friend, gifting me with castoffs and lending Finnegans Wake unstamped from a locked cabinet. (Because local book-burners relied on a list last updated in the 1930s, filth-monger James Joyce needed to be kept off shelves where Berger, Pynchon, and Updike were safe.)

My own collection lacked funding. The queue for a grocery store job was years long, and the only farm chore I could handle was slapstick comedy: set the hook in the bale and get yanked off the flatbed; set the hook in the bale and get yanked off the flatbed.... The year before it closed for good, I picked up some cash as a substitute projectionist at my uncle's and aunt's movie theater. (A kid with a tremor maintaining a carbon-arc projector was probably more suspenseful than anything on the screen.) Then I pitched a local history column to the Braymer Bee.2 None of these ventures brought in much.

Walks or cycling offered little escape, since the town was empty of scenery but rife with untrained, unleashed, unfenced dogs. If I wasn't in the back yard with our own unleashed and unfenced dogs, I could sit with Grandma next door while she read her stories (True Confessions) or watched her stories (General Hospital, Beverly Hillbillies, All My Children). On a weekend, I might play chess with a friend at his family farm. Or, and mostly, I could pace my basement bedroom.

In short (ha!) I'd been sentenced to four years in a minimum security prison. And as a prisoner I now had two duties:

  1. To survive until I could get out.
  2. To resist to the furthest extent compatible with my primary duty.

For the first time, then, my ambitions coincided with those of my classmates. Bullying dwindled from a minute-by-minute concern to an occasional issue in gym.

I'd tried to keep my musical tastes on the can't-wait-to-grow-up straight-and-narrow classical, lounge, and show tunes but Braymer wasn't reached by the necessary radio stations. No matter how I studied Conrad L. Osborne in Chillicothe discards, I couldn't listen to what I couldn't hear, and I needed to hear something other than my chorus of inner hecklers.

The early-1970s rock market welcomed cynicism, petulance, and gossip. Since satire was a traditionally mixed genre with wide allowances for crudity and sketchiness, I wisely advised myself that satirical top-of-the-pops entries made aesthetic sense even if the rest of it was garbage.

After a few months living with that constraint, the "satire" label having already directed my geek gaze away from (or through) artifacts as pure virtuosic-thingies-in-a-vacuum and towards a shared outside, I widened it to include more of their implied worlds: jealous songs ethnographically sampled the alien workings and sales of jealousy, boastful songs demonstrated the alien workings of confidence, and so on.

As for having a good beat and being able (or at least eager) to dance to it, I'd always bobbed like a parrot to Gould's Bach and Toscanini's Beethoven, so no issues there.

Aside from any immediate and intermediate gains, the general method search for an unlocked window or easily jimmied door; enter; make yourself at home; start dropping in on the neighbors was applicable to other new territories, even if, for political reasons or out of pure cussedness, I didn't always apply it.

And a few months later still, I found discursive models in the Meltzered/Bangsian school of rock-crit, which acknowledged celebrated, even, in its morose or desperate way the triune of historical context, tenacious artifact, and fleshly encounter: indissoluble in itself; remixable as fresh context.

While pacing through my third year of exile, I had what might be described as an original thought, the first of my life and the most rewarding:3

The time capsule of my high school library established that America's nineteenth-century canon as currently defined differed in almost every respect from the canon chosen by the nineteenth century itself.

And in my limited wandering through the realms of what I'll call for convenience "Modernism" and "1970s New York Times Book Review recommendations," I repeatedly felt a deflation of energy, of risk, of interest in the latter, a diagnosis that even its practitioners sometimes admitted.

Rather than contemporary literature having attained a unique and history-ending exhaustion, what if it was merely the latest in a long sequence of self-inflicted delusions of exhaustion? In the twentieth century, the nineteenth century canon had been sweetened by sources distrusted or inaccessible in their own time: failed or trivial genre exercises; self-published, barely published, or manuscript-only oddities. What would I find if I looked for their contemporary equivalents not in search of "lively junk" or "mind candy," not with the condescension of Leslie Fiedler's nod to science fiction or Gilbert Seldes's nod to jazz, but instead by granting ambitious practitioners their self-awareness?

Would-be-vocational pride 4 suggested poetry as a starting point, but gathering a critical mass of publications smaller-pressed than APR was impossible from central Missouri. (In fact, I didn't find an opportunity until life placed me and disposable income within walking distance of the Grolier Poetry Book Shop.) Westerns, romances, spy thrillers, and porn were almost as daunting. It seemed more efficient to survey one of the genres I'd read in prepubescence, mysteries or science fiction, since I already had some idea (even if inadequate) of the lay of their lands, both were well represented in the Chillicothe library, and both were widely available in relatively affordable paperbacks.

From mysteries, I remembered a noticeable mid-career shift in my childhood favorite, Ellery Queen, towards to overstate the case in the way of latter-day superhero comics maturity, realism, complexity, and relevance.5 That didn't give much to go on, though, and it would be another year before I bought a battered copy of The Long Goodbye (from the same garage sale as a battered copy of The Golden Hits of Leslie Gore; that garage had good taste), and another decade before I first read Patricia Highsmith.

On the other hand, my junior-high transition from science fiction had carried over more than one intriguing oddity Dangerous Visions and Fun With Your New Head, for example and its anthologies were easy to find and easy to track leads from.

As it happened, the world science fiction convention was being held in Kansas City later that year. If I could arrange transport, that might make a nice follow-up to the summer session classes I'd gotten permission to take at Mizzou.

Timing was good in another way as well: for sf as well as film, broad distribution of experimental work crested in the mid-1970s, and both New Waves would soon meet breakwaters engineered, in part, by some other MidAmeriCon attendees.

1  An error long since rectified.

2  When I reached the only interesting thing that had ever happened, I strove to maintain journalistic/scholarly objectivity, and succeeded so well that Mormons slimed me with grateful letters for years afterward. Thus I learned that journalistic/scholarly objectivity is really not my thing.

3  Directly or indirectly it brought me good reading, a social media presence, a lover, admittance to college, and, twenty years later, a shortlived (but paid!) monthly column.

4  I presumed that anyone as word-obsessed as myself must be a poet, following a line of thought similar to Lord Wendover's "Any gentleman with an estate and ten thousand a year should have a peerage."

5  Later I learned that this shift occurred around the same time the partnership behind "Ellery Queen" began farming their pseudonym to other artisans, including Theodore Sturgeon and Avram Davidson.

Expansion : 1976 1977

And that we are of Love's generation
There are manifest manifold signs. We have wings, and with us have the Loves habitation;
And manifold fair young folk that forswore love once, ere the bloom of them ended,
Have the men that pursued and desired them subdued, by the help of us only befriended,
With such baits as a quail, a flamingo, a goose, or a cock's comb staring and splendid.
- "Grand Chorus of Birds from Aristophanes,"
attempted in English verse after the original metre by Algernon Charles Swinburne

When I and another dorm resident pilgrimaged to the Columbia Anarchist League that summer, we found it sharing quarters with a naked woman who avoided conversation and with a member (or possibly the entirety) of the local Communist Party, who jovially assured me that Come the Revolution my sort would be first in front of the firing squad.

I saw both their points, and still do.

This is intended to be the origin story of an "image," not a Pooteriad, a Real-Life Top Ten-Zillion, an Apologia Pro Vita Mea, or My Life & Loves. It concerns the development of a survival tactic rather than what I did while surviving. Accordingly I'll knapp the wantons down.

Even if I don't inappropriately-touch on sexual practices, though, I at least need to skirt them. As lawyers and reviewers used to say, they are "essential to the storyline."

When my first lover launched herself at me in reassuringly unambiguous (if inexplicable)1 fashion, I anticipated some sort of relief. But solo training hadn't prepared me for the immersive expanse of that relief: a hitherto unknown knowledge of acceptance, affection, and communication, both verbal and not; an anything-fits-anywhere! security as incontestably Real as a low-hanging ceiling or an unexpected step and yet not painful. Love served as shelter and shield even from a distance: my final oral surgeries were far less nerve-wracking than earlier installments.

Most unexpectedly, love brought silence. Throughout my life, my skull's been occupied by a 24-hour-theater unspooling and respooling an ever-extended can't-stop-won't-stop shuffle play of blooper reels with commentary every private or public shame, every slight whether deservedly received by me or unjustly given by me, every mild embarrassment or grievous crime or grevious mispronunciation sometimes deafening, sometimes subsiding to tinnitus, but always, always ready to intrude. And for the first time, rather than drowning it out or yelling over it, I could walk away.

In my senior year, Braymer C-4 dropped even the pretense of education. Mr. Clodfelter tried to prepare me and a few other students for calculus, an effort which proved about as effective as Charlie Chaplin's pre-fight warm-up. Otherwise it was gym and four study halls. I read, or I chatted with Mary Margaret McAllister, or we mocked the white-supremacist propaganda sheet someone had subscribed the library to, or I wrote letters to my lover or to zines, or I searched for a college.

My slot for a grocery job had finally come up, providing some financial relief. Even so I could only afford two final-application fees for out-of-state schools. I winnowed the target list to Haverford (as a twofer with Bryn Mawr) and Vassar.

Vassar's alumna decided on a group interview and hosted an afternoon garden party of applicants, most of whom dressed in some indefinably alien fashion, kept their hands steady near the glassware, and (I later came to understand) attended private schools. I suppose she meant to learn which of us would be "a good match," who would best "fit in" at Vassar, and I suppose she did so.

The Haverford alumnus met me at a diner, and then drove us around the neighborhood to extend the conversation. Topics ranged widely, but included a compare-and-contrast between modes of feminist satire in Russ's Female Man and Delany's Triton.

In his congratulatory letter after acceptance, the alum hoped I'd be able to sustain my idealism. In turn I hope that good-hearted man never found out.

The summer of '77 was glorious: I'd escaped high school, I'd finalized financial aid for Haverford, and I attended summer sessions in my lover's home city, just a bike ride away from Planned Parenthood. A survey class which included Chekhov and Ibsen was particularly enjoyable, even when its teacher tried to guilt-trip me about intellectuals who deserted their homeland in its hour (or centuries) of need.

In contrast, I don't remember I and my lover worrying much about it. Her parents were academics, mine were military, and so the thought of extended separations was maybe less alien than it would've been to our neighbors. I hadn't yet read enough Burroughs to predict what symptoms might accompany abrupt cessation of a universal anodyne. And neither of us could have imagined the grotesque mash-up of Goodbye Columbus and The Rocky Horror Show at our relationship's terminus. We were far too clever to risk anything so humiliating.

1  Turns out she was a Bud Cort fan. More generally, this was the era when Woody Allen and David Bowie were male sex symbols, and body-builders were considered asexual freaks created for the delectation of gay guys. "Golden Years" indeed....

The Philosopher's Calculus, or Stone : 1977 1980

Fear of the irrational undoubtedly feeds on our lack of knowledge, but above all on those points of omission, on a certain impatience that keeps us from penetrating to the heart of the operative by confusing learning with the talent for rapidly consuming an "informational content." But to learn is to prepare oneself to learn what one in some way already knows. and to put oneself into such a state where the connection between things reverberates in the connection of the mind. The operation is not at first given as an arrow that links a source to a target, but rather emerges in the places where variables become merged and get tangled up without being policed by parentheses.
- Figuring Space (Les enjeux du mobile) by Gilles Châtelet
Have I no weapon-word for thee some message brief and fierce?
(Have I fought out and done indeed the battle?) Is there no shot left,
For all thy affectations, lisps, scorns, manifold silliness?
Nor for myself my own rebellious self in thee?
- "To the Pending Year" by Walt Whitman

The next few years were the most intellectually transformative, emotionally mercurial, and socially toxic of my existence, which I suppose is only to be expected when an eighteen-year-old autodidact is removed from years of rural seclusion (but not the gentlemanly sort) and deposited in two of America's finest colleges and near one of America's largest cities.

In that despised and now inconceivable final phase of public support for education, financial aid flowed but first-gen student advising did not. Ten years after I graduated, I discovered that my fellow students considered collaborative reverse-engineering of textbook-and-chalkboard proofs as essential for mathematics as language drills were for French or German classes. If I'd known, maybe I wouldn't have squandered so many opportunities.

On the other hand, who am I kidding? I was a stubborn cuss, and my introduction to the mores of prep-schooled young men the differences money made and the differences it didn't had started me on the cynical foot, a stance reinforced when Haverford's presidency passed from two-fisted activist Jack Coleman to dispiriting English toad Robert Bocking Stevens. Told what could be gained from a study group, I'd have said, "Who wants to hang out with math majors? It's bad enough I have to hang out with myself."

As was, I envisioned "college" as that phase of life in which massive blunders incur relatively minor penalties, and I behaved accordingly.

The result was the Great Work advertised by my self-assigned Yeats-and-Joyce-centered curriculum (pursued alongside a full externally-assigned course load): mortared and pestled; flamed and boiled in shit; buried to ferment; seasoned to taste. The most practiced of my little loves once confided on our way out of bed that she'd described me to her mother, a research psychologist, as "probably psychotic," and what shocked me about that was the idea of anyone disclosing their own life to their own parents.

If only to warn young people against the dangers of unsupervised reading, I suppose I should mention the precipitant of my greatest tumble, after which I saw only a choice of downhill slides: an all-out unrequited amour fou, an experience never to be repeated and best avoided in the first place. It's not that the Tudor poets and Baudelaire and Dowson and Yeats and the Confessionals and so on made the idea sound exactly desirable; more, I think, that there are only so many times you can rehearse a part before you put on the show.

Let's keep the rest on ice; there's way too much here for one meal. As a placeholder, though, and because COVID-19 isolation's got me nervy, and because I'm sick to death of writing without any identifiable human beings other than "I" and "me," and most people skip Acknowledgments anyway so no harm done, I'd like to cite some names. Bless this bed that I lie on.

Over away from Dane
Axe Edge sends down the Dove,
gathers the Manifold
and lets it slip
through complexity;
the hills in their turns tantalise

and instruct, then the learning
dissolves. There's no
holding it all.
- A Furnace, by Roy Fisher

Graduation : 1980 1982

No more education was possible for either man. Such as they were, they had got to stand the chances of the world they lived in; and when Adams started back to Cambridge to take up again the humble tasks of schoolmaster and editor he was harnessed to his cart. Education, systematic or accidental, had done its worst. Henceforth, he went on, submissive.
The Education of Henry Adams: a Study of Twentieth-Century Multiplicity

As my dropout year drew to its close, I took inventory:

This was as soft as a hardscrabble bohemian life was ever going to get. And I had not found the experience productive; it was not conducive to inspiration. All I'd achieved was that list of unpleasantries.

There was no way around it. Insofar as I had anything to offer existence (and we'll set that question aside for the nonce), I'd need a steady income.

Entry to the allegedly non-capitalist sanctuary of Academe was barred by its Customs department: I considered grades and required classes cruel mockeries of education, and had resolved never to become a perpetrator.

Thanks to my tremor and lack of sustain, physical labor was out, as were (due to different uncorrectable flaws) most of the worthwhile jobs open to mouthy intellectuals. (Nowadays I guess I might find hire as the concern troll equivalent of an agent provocateur, but that sounds even less attractive than grifting throwaway money from a venture capitalist.)

I was rarely picked for retail positions, and when I won one, I'd be fired within the month. Having been cursed with a rubber, stage-ready face that exaggerates any fleeting emotion, I couldn't hide contempt and hostility well enough to keep any other sort of service job, either.

It would have to be some sort of clerical position, then, and I'd need a degree to paper over my too-evident defects. Petite bourgeoisie or bust!

And to obtain that degree, I'd need to clean up my act for the sake of the kiddies, stop flinging my Sad-Harpo-Marx seduction technique at all and sundry, buckle down more and under less.

But before and beyond all that, I needed then as I needed later, as I need now to invent some "justification" is too presumptuous a word some motivation which could be reconciled with my life as stubbornly lived: one which has always compulsively extracted, deformed, misapplied, modified, inverted, ripped, and generally not-left-the-fuck-alone abstract verbal models which then, in their own right, tend to go all Frankenstein's monster on my sorry ass.

Before the fiction grew threadbare, announcing myself as poet was meant to signal harmless redundancy. If asked to elaborate, I'd declare an ambition to be a minor poet not a prophet, not a School-of-Me founder with a job at the Post Office 1 and an apartment which could host friends. Downscale Eddie FitzGerald, not shitkickin' Al Tennyson.

Later, stripped of laurel and intimates, I sought guidance in others from that narrow intersection of people I admired and people I felt akin to: the exceptionists, the easily ignored; those who pursued eccentric interests or contributed to essential goals in oddly irrelevant ways; amusements or annoyances to more important names.

But I anticipate. Returning to 1980:

I'm only of use as a persuasively dissenting voice, but I must never be so persuasive as to dominate.2 If I couldn't talk I had nothing to contribute, but left unmuzzled I was a menace to the community. Well! A short leash, then, and a fenced yard for exercise. Try to avoid battlegrounds which might incur meaningful casualties. Reserve untrammeled discourse for nearest-and-dearests, preferably as I decided not long afterward, post facto, based on new evidence, per SOP preferably within the safe all-accepting bounds of a monogamous sexual relationship, where static build-ups and short circuits could be grounded by bed.

I didn't necessarily want to be worthless, but if that was the price of pointlessness, so be it.

The advent of this story's shaggy "Rosebud" dogsled, the "image", wasn't memorable. As previously admitted, it's been a cheap sturdy utilitarian thing for daily use, like my father's CPO mug, not a major purchase or knock-me-down Damascan reveal.

I know for certain that by the fall of 1980 I was keeping it within reach: an easily graspable and transportable geometric reminder of the insufficiency of logical discourse, and geometric hint as to how that insufficiency might be addressed and deployed, and then subjected to reminder. A surveying tool for local maxima.

I re-entered college and lightened my course load.

With fewer sins to confess, there was less impetus to poeticize, and I diverted attention to my role as lyricist and lead vocalist in my friends' rock band. (I was lead vocalist because I had the least semblance of talent and the most brazen disregard for public humiliation. It was a very traditional rock band.)

Early in 1981 I wrote a song paying homage to my new lover. In honor of those of her friends and family who quite reasonably doubted my worth as boyfriend material, I also drew imagery from those exemplars of disappointing promise, Orson Welles and John Barth. That referential weave kept the lyrics memorable, and on long walks the happy yowl of its third verse still sometimes sets my pace:

After she hits the end of the funhouse or gets lost in the road,
The mirrors will be dusted and the ditches will be mowed.
Oh, but anything worthwhile must be empty, base, and vain!
Extremities are foolish. Even fools get paid.

1  Reagan's cuts erased those dreams, along with some of my friends.

2  Fellow Delanyites may here be reminded of the double-bind of Bron Helstrom's female destination in Trouble on Triton. And I've never denied the resemblance. Identity is not endorsement.

Publishing the dissertation : 1989 2020

There must be no cessation
Of motion, or of the noise of motion,
The renewal of noise
And manifold continuation;

And, most, of the motion of thought
And its restless iteration,

In the place of the solitaires,
Which is to be a place of perpetual undulation.
- "The Place of the Solitaires" by Wallace Stevens

Eight years later the naysayers were proven right. In our last meeting, my newly-ex cheerfully remarked, "I feel like it's been years since I did my own thinking" (a hot roar flooded my ears) that's not true!
how had I broken so much?

Predictably enough, I fell apart substance-abused, fecklessly self-harmed, shucked my duties, composed formal verse, rock-n-rolled all night (well, occasionally past midnight, anyway), re-entered social media (now including a new medium), made some friends, and received far more comfort than I gave.

But this new cycle of breakdown and crawl-from-the-wreckage didn't weaken my faith or smash the icon of my "image." It merely persuaded me to modify some expectations and some habits.

One of the latter modifications brought us together here today.

Hi. How are you?

All those diversions,
The years and decades, the manifold span of life
—These were the dialectic of a fold
Formed out of almost nothingness, a fold of hours
In a space where the “hour” is eccentricity.

- The Astropastorals by Douglas Crase
Kat eats Manifold, 1935-07-07

. . .

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

For 240 pages I and the protagonist hurriedly search for some escape from (or some resignation to) all-surrounding ever-nearing disaster. And yet (unlike Highsmith or Thompson) Hughes has gifted her protagonist with a warmly supportive family, virtue, charm, capability, and not a hint of self-destruction, and then goes on throughout the book to drop new and more improbable gifts into his lap. The story's incidents seems delusionally optimistic; the story's mood is doom.

Partly it's our recognition that a stack of gifts is no reliable shield, that they'll merely make a louder tumble and leave a more imposing cautionary ruin.

Partly it's our recognition that if gifts stopped dropping the novel would have ended on page fifty, or page two.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.