pseudopodium
. . . James Thurber

. . .

If I Can't Masturbate in Public, You Can Keep Your Revolution
(part of our Sexual Degradation Special)
I'm all for porn, but I have to admit that this art students dressing slutty stuff seems about as genuinely liberating a revolutionary act as the Andrews Sisters cover of "Rum and Coca-Cola (Working for the Yankee Dollar)."

Which is one of my favorite records.

Schmalhausen trouble
from Is Sex Necessary? by James Thurber and E. B. White

. . .

Why I Am Not a Diary, as explained by James Thurber of Columbus, Ohio:

"The sharp edges of old reticences are softened in the autobiographer by the passing of time -- a man does not pull the pillow over his head when he wakes in the morning because he suddenly remembers some awful thing that happened to him fifteen or twenty years ago [or he doesn't do it oftener than twice a week, anyway - RD], but the confusions and the panics of last year and the year before are too close for contentment. Until a man can quit talking loudly to himself in order to shout down the memories of blunderings and gropings, he is in no shape for the painstaking examination of distress and the careful ordering of event so necessary to a calm and balanced exposition of what, exactly, was the matter."

. . .

Essays We Never Bothered Finishing Dept.

Does anybody read James Thurber anymore? A New Yorker humorist from the first half of the century, he mostly wrote "casuals," short, curious, cranky, occasionally funny nonfiction bits -- literate bathroom reading -- that found a home in the magazine's Talk of the Town section. Collections of these brief, memoir-y things were best-sellers in their day, but like spindrift, they've proved too lightweight to settle and survive. Thurber's reputation rests on the strength of one sturdy little 1947 story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"....
- Taylor Antrim in the Bay Guardian's "Lit" section

It's weird but I actually do seem to remember James Thurber -- it's Taylor Antrim that I'm having trouble placing....

. . .

New Adventures in the Integral Calculus

I've read McLuhan & Fuller & Sontag & Barthes, Bataille & Blanchot, Derrida & Spivak. I've read Benjamin & Adorno & Bakhtin. I've read Cixous & Irigaray & Kristeva & Jardine. I've even tried reading Baudrillard & Althusser & Bloom & Paglia, the Four Assholes of the Apocalypse.

And the most important insight captured by twentieth century thinking still seems to me to be the following definition:

The word "love" is used loosely by writers, and they know it. Furthermore, the word "love" is accepted loosely by readers and they know it. There are many kinds of love, but for the purposes of this article I shall confine my discussion to the usual hazy interpretation: the strange bewilderment which overtakes one person on account of another person. Thus when I say love in this article, you will take it to mean the pleasant confusion which we know exists.
James Thurber & E. B. White, Is Sex Necessary

Optional exercise: From this premise, derive the world.

. . .

Mystery Macintosh, My Darling

(Also at that other world)

"The M'Intosh Murder Mystery" by John Gordon,
Journal of Modern Literature 29.1 (2005) 1

All right-thinking people agree that The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism's most unconscionable omission was James Thurber's "The Macbeth Murder Mystery", and so I'm certain John Gordon is a right-thinking person.

Except in this case.

[For the non-Joyceans in our audience, here's the story so far.

Aside from its status as early science fiction, Ulysses represents advanced evolution of the detective story, with each incident a visible and meaningful clue. Having played so fairly, Joyce could dispense with the handwaving detective hero, and instead left handwaving in the laps of the readers. And a jolly time we've had of it, too!

As early Joyceans gained confidence in their ability to tie every detail to every other detail, the few remaining danglies gained weightiness. (Weightiness to a Joycean, mind you; the centrality such nits assume in the secondary sources can sadly mislead a first-time reader of Ulysses. "When do we get to the word known by all men?")

Some of these puzzles, I think, weren't originally meant as puzzles. The (scanty) evidence suggests that "U.P. Up." delivered a clear message to nineteenth-century English and Irish urbanites but happened to escape documentation, becoming a hapax legomenon of popular culture. Numeric errata seem best explained as Homer nodding. Or shrugging. Come on, you ask Homer "How many fingers am I holding up?" what's he gonna do?

The Man in the Macintosh, however, emphatically riddled from his first appearance:

"Now who is that lankylooking galoot over there in the macintosh? Now who is he I'd like to know? Now, I'd give a trifle to know who he is."

A lot of scholars have tried to earn that trifle over the years, and Gordon deserves an "A" for assurance:]

"I have lived with [the proposed solution] for a while and have come to think of it as a solid and upstanding reading which improves on acquaintance. I believe in it. It can come to dinner; it can date my daughter."

Gordon proposes that M'Intosh is the ghost of Bloom's father, who committed suicide after the death of his young wife. And (so confident is he) this proposed solution is used only as a tee-off from which to approach another, less often asked, riddle: What killed Bloom's mother? (So's not to steal Gordon's thunderclap, I'll just say Joyce may have anticipated the misogynous hard-boiled dick.)

But I do not think his proposal makes a solid and upstanding tee-off. I do not believe in it; I do not want it to date my daughter. (I am, however, prepared to buy it a drink some time.) Because the character who inspects M'Intosh most closely is Leopold Bloom.

Now I admit it's a wise son that knows his father. But even a flibbertigibbet like Hamlet was able to recognize Hamlet Senior's form straight off. And clear-sighted Bloom doesn't note a family resemblance? In a graveyard?

No, I'm afraid all the lovely circumstantial evidence Gordon's gathered just shows how irreconcilable the lyric and the narrative finally are, even in Ulysses. Poetically, his argument's airtight. Prosaically, it won't fly.

(And who do I think M'Intosh is? Well, since I ask, personally I think he's the fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush.)

1 I also recommend from this issue "Remembering Race", where Sergio Rizzo documents the dependents of that Red Wheelbarrow, and "Repulsive Modernism: Djuna Barnes' The Book of Repulsive Women" by Melissa Jane Hardie, who so neatly associates revision and repression that I think Freud should take over my dishwashing duties.

Responses

A bhikku writes:

Tell you what. Rudolph Virag? Lankylooking? Galoot? Doesn't sound like the Bloom physique, does it? No, Gordon's looking for a counterpart to Stephen's Hamlet thoughts, isn't he.

Apparently JJ used to ask cocky Ulysses readers who they thought the fellow was anyway, go on then.

. . .

Tender and Private
from the back cover

as stuffer or stuffing

The Lovely Horrible Stuff
by Eddie Campbell

Everything goes from grand to paltry. Given long enough the human being can destroy anything, even the planet he lives on. Destroying a system of equitable exchange is child's play.
- Eddie Campbell

The Lovely Horrible Stuff was published in 2012. Following on the full-color mysteries of The Fate of the Artist and the house-museum of Alec: The Years Have Pants, odd looking and oddly structured, marketed as a book "about money" but disconcertingly apolitical, it was, to reappropriate Jonathan Lethem's phrase, "very quietly received."

That doesn't mean it didn't land an impact here and there. It just meant landing in a soft place.

And now aw shit.

* * *

I have a similar soft spot for 1993's Graffiti Kitchen. After a decade of charming groove, Graffiti Kitchen was a "departure," as the critics say. The King Canute Crowd's scrappy Zip-a-Tone vanished along with grins, pratfalls, and pubbish inconsequence. Instead, Campbell scratched the page till it bled.

The departure was permanent. Starting with his next personal work, Campbell changed "Alec"'s genre, marital status, profession, homeland, and (before long) name. That new groove spooled over the next two decades and there at the end of the spool lies The Lovely Horrible Stuff.

* * *

On the explicit face-and-title-page of it, "Lovely Horrible Stuff" refers to money, but most readers easily spot family squirming under that label, too. Either way,whether enthusiastic or not-so-much, whether amateur or professional, reviewers saw the book as another slice of a familiar cranked sausage. A plurality of Campbell's post-Canute work depicts the unresolvable conflict between

  1. a professional livelihood which can only be sustained by vigilant hunting, scavenging, and hoarding
  2. and

  3. a professional practice which can only be sustained by free-floating reverie and temporary delusions of omnipotent control,
and since at least The Dance of Lifey Death the conflict's been iconized as an obscuring thought balloon. Domestic squabbles and worse, in the grand tradition of newspaper comics and stand-up comedy, were there from the start of "Alec"/"Campbell"'s marriage. Furious dunning letters had been a mainstay gag since Shakespeare started penning them in 1992's The Cheque Mate. Campbell's discursive impulse had already digressed into informal research and documentary across a multitude of single-pagers and one-offs over the years. So, not much new.

In particular, The Lovely Horrible Stuff clearly "builds on" seems inappropriate; let's say led from the gorgeous full-color artwork and interstitial fumetti of The Fate of the Artist. Most bizarrely, Fate's metafictional TV adaptation became a metafactual attempt at something like "My World and Welcome to It" with James Thurber playing the role of William Windom.

The one novelty everyone noted was that Fate's photography and hand-crafting had digitally merged into something well, reactions ranged from masterful to amateurish. My own was, if I had to pick a word, "worrisome." Not the failed reassurance of CGI's uncanny valley; not with that Photoshop-airbrush applied like mascara in a Kuchar movie. Something sadder, more Cronenbergian....

In other ways, too, Stuff seemed to me like a business-as-usual brim shading some sort of breakout, or breakthrough, or breakdown.... Yes, "Campbell" had dunned before, but never so close to home:

Jack, my father-in-law, one of the six or seven truly marvellous individuals I have met in my life
Jack vs. balloons in 1988, The Dead Muse
You have given no thought to our interests in this matter so obsessed are you with
... & in The Lovely Horrible Stuff

Even when The Fate of the Artist's domestic violence drew blood, it was more or less successfully played for laffs. But the staging went awry this time round: Stuff's most physical conflict lacked any hint of slapstick, and Campbell's dash towards the safety of a gag pointedly flopped. The closest thing to nuptial comfort is confined to one page of such nakedly intense nostalgia that I avert my eyes whenever I reach it.

Despite its egocentrism (in the sense of heliocentrism), frets, and blunders, the Alec series never seemed neurotic or despairing. Even at the end of one's rope, you (almost) always reached stabilizing humor. The previous first-person installment kicked that stool aside. In Stuff, it's liable to tip over, and the failures convey self-loathing with more conviction than anything R. Crumb or Joe Matt ever mustered: as comics characters, at least, "Matt" and "Crumb" are mercifully numb to personal responsibility, much less responsibility for three children.

Structurally, The Lovely Horrible Stuff is an odd book out as well, almost two books, scored down the middle for easy snapping:

First a pacing round "Campbell"'s loathings, delusions, and losses, punctuated by brief vocational escapes into Cloudintellectualpropertyland. In this half of the book, we don't see his memorable fancies for ourselves; they're drawn as simple icons or fogbanks. "Campbell" has left the building, and like other characters we're stuck with his blind and deaf husk.

The second half shows one place he went: a continuously engaged topic-and-travel documentary (as opposed to the memoir documentary of How to Be an Artist). "Campbell" looks happiest here, in the inflated non-ego of not-painstakingly-verified research and formal control, semidetached from the ground while remaining firmly of the world, floating/sinking by his clutch of stone balloons....

* * *

I itched to write about The Lovely Horrible Stuff after my first half-dozen readings or so. But even a childless self-serializing essayist must deal with some family and finance concerns, and you see how things have gone around here.

The artist's own blog froze at March 2012. As years went by with no Campbell news other than reprints, illustrations, and, more recently, a scholarly book, the topic started to feel a bit taboo, as if the book's toxicity had leaked into the environment.

Because, like Graffiti Kitchen, it did taste toxic, or (depending on the taster) bracingly medicinal. Graffiti Kitchen put paid to the King Canute sequence; a new sequence began. Apart from the hero's signature look, what made this second, longer, sequence part of "Alec" was Campbell's faith that a world of omnipotent imagination might be built on the unscrupulous details of the real. Unlikely sounding, maybe, but certainly not unheard of.

Aestheticism-and-reality as vocation, meanness-and-dreaminess as motif, material-and-virtual as technique: three knockabout marriages of stubborn antitheses. If it was true that, after a quarter-century, the series had again scorched its own earth, where would it migrate next?

I'd still be wondering if I'd continued to look for word: the aftermath's been described only in audio. Campbell-the-artist killed his series hero off before The Fate of the Artist began. Having resurrected him in good American comic book fashion, what could the artist do for an encore? The solution was straightforward, if not exactly satisfying.

First, and barely able to get a word in edgewise:

EC: I've kind of put my own voice in storage right now. I'm applying myself as a craftsman to someone else's stories. [...] I was very driven. I felt I'd got hold of something important to say about life
FT: Heh-yes!
EC:And I was driven to
FT: To say it!
EC: ... to get it down on paper, and build
FT: Hmm!
EC: — upon it and investigate it in all its nooks and crannies and facets and variations. And I'm not feeling that at the moment
FT: No. [a spew of fucking twittery]

And then a Comics Journal podcast with room to lay down his weary voice:

Q: What's the closest you've come to quitting cartooning?

A: Recently. What I was talking about before, having lost this context. I've spent three years doing this book about the history of cartooning. But the same time I'm not creating new cartoons myself. There's probably a couple of years there where I just hadn't created any new comics work. The last thing I did was the book I did with Neil Gaiman. [...] Recently I've been drawing myself out of this funk. I've been illustrating illustrating the stories of my wife, Audrey Niffenegger. A quick catch-up there: I got divorced four years ago. And this year I married Audrey Niffenegger, the novelist. And for some time I've been working on a book where I'm illustrating her short stories. [...]

The money book, The Lovely Horrible Stuff I think that book took a lot out of me. I think it left me, I think I wrestled with so much realer stuff in there I kind of dislodged myself out of my comfort zone, [indecipherable]. I kind of left myself stranded on the beach of that sandy island in the South Seas, like O'Keefe in the story. I felt a bit wrecked after that one. In fact it was shortly after that book that I got divorced.

Q: I'm obliged to ask how was the

A: I'm kind of playing out in that book the disintegration of my own family life in a metaphorical way. The whole money arguments were really arguments for a disintegration of a harmony in my life.

Q: Was the creation of the pieces about your stepfather, even at the time of the creation, was that more taxing emotionally than the traditional Alec comics?

A: I didn't think so at the time but I think probably, in retrospect. I think in the end my feeling was that I shouldn't have done a comic about this. I shouldn't be... I think I kind of wrecked my own concept of what I was doing, by thinking "Now, how far can I push that?" Have I pushed this too far? Should I be putting real people in here in such a raw form, where they don't get a chance to give their side of the story? I-I, you know, and so many comics today are maybe going too far and you know Alison Bechdel's another one, Roz Chast's we're treading a fine line of propriety.

Out the window it goes...

 

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.