pseudopodium
. . . Los Angeles

. . .

Recently received: Invitation to a wedding at the Wing Lam Kung Fu Studio. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for marriage, I have to admit that some weddings have been fun:

. . .

Cholly's just back from Los Angeles, and the big news in the LA Weekly seemed to be cosmetic surgery, which takes up as much space as the Web and sex combined in San Francisco papers: thirty large ads before the movie listings. Breast implant before-and-after shots, skin abrasion, nose breaking, bone scraping, hair reshaping, wrinkle stuffing, lip puffing, liposuction, hard questions ("Incision - Underarm vs. Nipple Vs. Bellybutton?"), and one thing so awful I don't even know what it is and I don't think I want to, either:


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This is the most disturbing mystery I've wanted to keep mysterious since reading the conclusion of Chinese Gastronomy's entry on "live monkey brain of Kwangtung":

"Any sauce?" we asked. He just shrugged. "The usual soy sauce and ginger." He went on to the description of another small horror called "Three Peeps" -- a descriptive name which requires no further elucidation. It was served with the same sauce.

. . .

More news from the L.A. Weekly: When asked whether he reads poetry, noted spritual guide Michael Tolkin responded, "I'll read whoever gets published in The New Yorker or the London Review of Books or whatever intellectual journals have poetry in them. I don't know what it is about poetry, but I like it. I like geniuses. In collected works, I'm drawn to the last 15 pages or so. I like seeing what people wrote before they died."

. . .

Irony Watch: Cholly and his lovely chaffeuse spent their first night in Los Angeles at a Douglas Sirk double feature. This being L.A. and all, there was a Special Live Guest: a German actress who had studied with pre-cinema Sirk in the 1930s and who had appeared in Sirk's best-known theatrical production: The Silver Lake, by Georg Kaiser and Kurt Weill, which opened a month after the Nazis took power and closed after thirty noisy performances.

Wandering past the concession stand between shows, Cholly found the Special Live Guest engaged with a couple of audience members and quickly took pen and pad in hand. After all, how many chances do you get nowadays to talk to an actor from the Weimar Republic?

Alas, we all get plenty of chances nowadays to talk to boring blowhards, and the audience member who held the floor (fittingly, an architect by trade) was determined to keep it by demonstrating, over and over again, his astonishing command of film history and style. And alas again, Cholly was much too befuddled by fatigue to figure out a way to reposition the conversational spotlight, finally giving up and returning to Tarnished Angels when the architect informed the actress that Quentin Tarantino admired Douglas Sirk's style and then began explaining who Quentin Tarantino was.

Earlier, the architect had explained that Sirk's Universal pictures were worth watching because of their "irony," and graciously invited Cholly to agree with his opinion. A last alas, for, although the "happy ending" of All I Desire and the cold-blooded spiritual vampires of Magnificent Obsession positively glow with irony, irony is not the principal achievement of Sirk's weepies: Sirk doesn't exactly approve of movie romance, but neither does he keep his distance. What he finds of interest in romantic melodrama is its unique ability to diagram the inevitable misunderstandings and failures resulting from the human need to connect: the clashes of familial, social, and sexual duties; the unresolvable conflict between the abjection of neediness and the desire to be worthy of love; the cocoons that digest their inhabitants. And he diagrams those tangles full-out with every aspect of the film from narrative structure through set design to composition of individual frames -- although, OK, not so successfully with the soundtrack music, but that's always been the curse of post-1939 Hollywood production....

. . .

Drink

DREAM

EVERYONE'S . . .

. . . ANYTIME

INGREDIENTS ON CROWN
CONTENTS 6 1/2 FL. OZ.
BOTTLED UNDER LICENSE OF
THE DREAM COMPANY
LOS ANGELES, CALIF.
LICENSEE'S NAME ON CROWN
Drink DREAM everyone's ... anytime Martha Soukup is an excellent writer. She's also nice to her friends, which is why her "DREAM" bottle went to me rather than to eBay.
The DREAM that Martha gave me was battered, chipped, and empty. All as expected per licensing terms of THE DREAM COMPANY, LOS ANGELES, CALIF. -- I'm not complaining! But I couldn't help but wonder....

What INGREDIENTS were on that missing CROWN?

What LICENSEE'S NAME was on that missing CROWN?

To my curiosity's relief came eBay -- yes, the very eBay that I'd cheated out of Martha Soukup's DREAM! -- with an unopened DREAM for sale and a close-up photograph of that DREAM's CROWN.

The INGREDIENTS are "ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR & COLOR"

The LICENSEE'S NAME is "ORANGE SODA"

I don't deserve my life.

DREAM

. . .

John Williams did good with the background music for The Long Goodbye, though, supplying a dozen or so genre workouts of a single dopey song: cool blues to grocery store muzak to bad piano bar to doorbell chimes to Mexican funeral band.... It wasn't so much the song's ubiquity as the way the ubiquity went uncommented on that skewed the movie's reality in the appropriate direction: only a (more) thoroughly notice-nothing version of 1970s Los Angeles could have Philip Marlowe living in it.

Ironic hardboiled updates must be therapeutic for bombastic composers. The only thing I've ever enjoyed by Andrew Lloyd Webber was his blast-on-and-off-like-a-motel-shower over-the-top melodramatic foreground music for Gumshoe....

. . .

Movie Comment: Chuck & Buck You got a friend

(concluding our Sexual Degradation Special)

So I wanted to finish up with a couple of male sexual degradations, you know, just for variety's sake, but I couldn't remember any, mostly 'cause I don't think it really counts as degradation if the guy is paying for the service. (Feel free to submit your own suggestions in the upper right corner....) There are those great male sex symbols of the 1920s and 1930s, but one of the reasons they're sexy is that they all seem so cheerful, like big happy puppy dogs (ref. yesterday's episode).

The best I can come up with is Hollywood's more-revived-than-ever interest in ugly, sweaty, stupid, disgusting, and utterly isolated homosexual characters. You know, the kind of thing junior high kids and other morons have in mind when they say stuff like "That's so gay." As far as I know, this was re-initiated by Boogie Nights, which posited a 100%-heterosexual porn industry in which an actor with a twelve-inch dick somehow became a star. Huh. Anyway, the one homosexual in the porn industry (heck, in all of California!) was, of course, very lonely.

The tradition continues with Chuck & Buck, which is powered by a lot of pleasing Albert-Brooks-style squirm humor but which wants to show off its indie muscles by going all "dangerous" on us. And what's more dangerous than a gay guy? Gee, how about a gay guy who actually manages to ever encounter even one other gay guy in Los Angeles? Yeah, I know, that would defy credibility....

Personally, I think the story would've worked a lot better if it had been about the degrading relationship between a Hollywood producer and a Hollywood writer.

. . .

There's no denying the mythic catchiness of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. And there's no admitting his possibility. Just where would a glib dumb prissy pushy tall dark handsome breast-beating alcoholic intellectual low-brow heterosexual urban nostalgic two-fisted prose stylist idealist spring from? Los Angeles? Regretfully, no. And how would he make a living? As a private detective? I think not. Marlowe can only be explained as a self-loathing writer's pastless futureless power fantasy, who springs only from a book and makes a living only in books.

Which entices moviemakers into a dried river bank surrounded by giant ants, n'est-ce pas, cherie? Movies are supposed to be able to handle detectives; it says so right here in my Popular Culture Handbook. But how can the movies straightfacedly present such an unjustifiable character? ("With Cary Grant" is the best answer, but Chandler didn't manage to talk the studio into it.)

The first successful Chandler adaptations saved themselves by keeping some snappy lines and imagery and ditching the leading man: Edward Dmytryk's "Marlowe" reverts to sleazy Hammett-style professionalism and Howard Hawks's "Marlowe" anticipates James Bond's irresistable aplomb.

Less successful as film but more interesting as critique, two later adaptations tossed out the easy stuff like Chandler's dialog in favor of Chandler's essential oddity. Proving again that hostility towards one's source material is the healthiest stance for a director, Robert Altman's attempt to destroy Marlowe is cinema's first real tribute to the character. The Elliott Gould "Marlowe" could be an aging trust-fund kid who's retreated into fantasy, but there's no way of knowing for sure; the movie preserves his inexplicability while giving it a believable presentation (this Marlowe is as passive, inarticulate, threadbare, and isolated as most self-deluded personalities) and environment (this Los Angeles is too universally self-absorbed to take notice of any particular citizen's delusions). And Sterling Hayden's towering and toppling "Roger Wade" is just the self-loathing powerful writer to shove the Chandler subtext explicitly into our face and down our throats where it belongs.

The only movie ever influenced by The Long Goodbye was The Big Lebowski, a hoot-and-a-half in which Altman's ego-gored hostility is replaced by the Coen Bros.' aimless playing around. Since Jeff Bridges' character pretty much shares their attitude, the result is the most warm-heartedly engaged take on "Philip Marlowe" yet, even if there's not much Brotherly affection left over for any of the other characters....

For a long time -- like, a really long time, let's not even go there -- I've dreamt about my own fully explicated version of a Chandler detective: he's a paranoid schizophrenic who's assigned cases by the voices in his head and whose secretary / leg-man is his pet parakeet. But I have a hard time writing fiction so I've never committed this dream to print. Probably just as well.

Perhaps a similar dream prodded at young Jonathan Lethem, who came up with an admirably tailored science-fiction-y explanation for the Chandleresque narrator of Motherless Brooklyn: Tourette's syndrome. The gap between the narrator's careful prose style and his hit-me-harder banter? Tourette's syndrome affects speech and not writing. The narrator's weirdly monastic dedication to the case? Tourette's syndrome is associated with obsessive-compulsive behavior. His inability to sustain a sexual relationship? Say no more. If anything, it's too well-tailored: even the narrator eventually notices the snug fit, but, of course, is able to explain that explaining his every trait as a symptom of Tourette's syndrome is actually just another symptom of Tourette's syndrome. Clothes make the man if you're selling clothes, syndromes make the character if you're selling pop psychology, but a novel's air gets kind of stuffy by the end....

Which also counts as a Chandleresque effect: Chandler's The Long Goodbye was more like The Long Squirm in a Pinching Suit (but in an interesting way, if you know what I mean), and I could never spend more than a couple of minutes in Playback without rushing back outside for a breather....

. . .

One of our Brooklyn/Toronto readers queries:

It would be a great help to my current project if you'd get back to me with your idea of the two or three greatest LINER NOTES of all time.

1. One-String Eddie Jones & Edward Hazelton - One-String Blues
The original 1964 liner notes are unsigned (and typewritten); some quick web research reveals the writer as folk music collector Samuel B. Charters. However, in the great tradition of Anglo-American fiction, Charters is only a framing narrator. The next-level-down storyteller (and illustrator) is "a Los Angeles designer and artist who has for many years been seriously interested in ethnic music of every kind," Frederick Usher Jr. ("with assistance by Roderick Usher"). The innermost stories, told by Jones and Hazelton on the recording itself, integrate with the frames to form an overwhelmingly resonant narrative about American class structure, race, and the limited power and unlimited enticement of art. I think about this package all the time.
A One-String

Where is Foot Foot   2. The Shaggs - Philosophy of the World
The jacket is a beautiful work in its own right and an essential rounding out of the aural experience: have you ever heard anyone talk about the Shaggs without mentioning the backstory?

3. The complete works of Pedro Bell & Associates
If I have to pick a single example, I guess it'd be his wildly offended and offensive Electric Spanking of War Babies for Funkadelic. But I got to specially mention the Funkcronomicon panel where Bill Laswell gets eaten by a skanky demon girl.
  I'm DEEP

. . .

  Peace on Earth, Mistrust towards Man
Photos by Juliet Clark
The Elves of Teegeeack 3

Scariest sight during last month's visit to Los Angeles was the line of normality-starved families waiting to visit The L. Ron Hubbard Winter Wonderland ("Santa's Home in Hollywood").

Department store Santas are disturbing enough; can you imagine the MEST-scarring trauma of a Scientology Santa? "Well, Jimmy, your free personality test indicates that Santa will bring you EVERYTHING YOU WANT FOR THE REST OF ETERNITY if you'll just stuff these copies of Dianetics in your parents' stockings...."

In Hubbard's holiday homily, note his characteristic replacement of wishy-washy "love" with manly paranoid "trust." That was the true meaning of Christmas 2001, all right: No telepathic mind control, no peace!

The nicest sights were at the Getty Museum's Devices of Wonder exhibition. Gadgets through the ages isn't that novel a curatorial idea, but not many curators get to plunge fist-first into Getty-sized pockets: a Chardin, for example, is casually thrown on as illustrative spice....

As usual in high-concept historical surveys, the contemporary work included seems an ill-advised afterthought. I'm not even sure what they were afterthinking: our investment-oriented rhetoric-privileging high art world pointedly shares neither intent nor craft with infotainment manufacturers. Better to just borrow a corner of the Exploratorium, or fill a plastic tub with boing-boing-ed swag.

On the other hand, the Joseph Cornell boxes fit right in, especially the knock-down twist-around pick-me-up gorgeous "Beehive (Thimble Forest)" -- with silver bells/boughs sadly frozen, though, by the conflict typical of such exhibitions: the fine art museum relies on preservation whereas the artifact relies on manipulation, and they compromise in mere display. Perhaps deep pockets somewhere sometime might be persuaded to provide replicas in the gift shop...?

Beehive (Thimble Forest)

. . .

"weird"

 
... later he will tell the story, upstairs in Elvis's private "superstar" suite. Sammy has taken the night off from his own show at the Sands to party with his third wife, Altovise, a handsome black dancer who was once a member of Sammy's troupe, and with Donald Rumsfeld, President Nixon's aide and director of the Cost of Living Council, who is staying at the Davises' with his wife, Joyce.

Tonight is the finale of the Rumsfelds' Western swing that took them from the Republican National Convention in Miami to Los Angeles, to attend the Republican-sponsored party there for prominent entertainers, and then to Las Vegas, to lounge around Sammy's private pool and play a little tennis....

Outside the superstar suite, Sammy pauses in the corridor to do an impersonation of Elvis on stage, mimicking Elvis's catatonic stance and what Donald Rumsfeld calls his "weird" smile. The impersonation is successful; Joyce Rumsfeld takes him by the shoulders, shakes him playfully, asks, "What are we going to do with you, Sammy?"

"Well," he says, "you're stuck with me for the next four years."

- from "Sammy Davis, Jr., Has Bought the Bus" by James Conaway, The New York Times Magazine, 1974,
quoted in The Sammy Davis, Jr., Reader ed. Gerald Early
 

. . .

Another waffling Democrat!

From "Dean's straight-talking image is getting tarnished By Mark Z. Barabak / Los Angeles Times":

Dean, a 54-year-old physician by training, had a more moderate record during his 11 years as Vermont governor than his current favor among liberals would suggest. He was a friend of the environment and signed landmark "civil union" legislation that granted gay and lesbian couples all the rights and benefits of marriage. But at the same time, he supported gun-owner rights, cut taxes, capped spending and consistently balanced the state budget, leaving enough for a rainy-day surplus that has spared Vermont the fiscal trauma facing most other states.
Yes, as a liberal, I insist that rights go unsupported, that budgets be unbalanced, that governments maintain no surplus, and that spending always increase. In fact, the persnickety fiscal competence of the Reagan and Bush and Bush adminstrations is the very thing that turned me against them. No deficit, no peace!

. . .

Down Home Music

Mojo Hand : An Orphic Tale by J. J. Phillips

1. "Eurydice's victims died of snake-bite, not herself." - Robert Graves

Protagonist "Eunice" is, as we can plainly see, an un-dry Eurydice. And love-object Blacksnake Brown is Orphic because he sets the stately oaks to boogie:

She went to the phonograph there and looked through the stack of records under it. Down at the bottom, dusty and scratched, she found an old 78 recording called “Bakershop Blues” by a man named Blacksnake Brown, accompanied by the Royal Sheiks. She lifted off the classical album, slipped on the 78, then turned the volume up. It started scratching its tune.

I want to know if your jelly roll’s fresh, or is it stale, I want to know if your jelly roll’s fresh, or is it stale? Well, woman, I’m going to buy me some jelly roll if I have got to go to jail.

Almost immediately she heard shouts and shrieks from the other room.

“. . . Oh, yeah, get to it. . . . Laura, woman, how long since your husband’s seen you jelly roll?”

“Gertrude, don’t you ask me questions like that. Eh, how long since your husband’s seen you?”

Eunice went back downstairs. Everyone had relaxed. Some women were unbuckling their stockings, others were loosening the belts around their waists. Someone had gotten out brandy and was pouring it into the teacups.

“Give some to the debs,” someone said, “show them what this society really is.”

Just as plainly, though, "Blacksnake" is a snake, with an attested bite. And for all l'amour fou on display, Eunice is only secondarily drawn to her Orpheusnake; first, last, and on the majority of pages in-between, she's after Thrace-Hades:

And even before that she had been drawn to the forbidden dream of those outside the game, for they had been judged and did not care to concern themselves with questioning any stated validity in the postulates. Playing with friends, running up and down the crazily tilted San Francisco streets, they would often wander into the few alleys between houses or stores down by the shipyards. [...] The old buildings were not of equal depth in back, nor were they joined to one another, and there were narrow dark passageways between the buildings. She would worm her way in and out of these, for they were usually empty, though occasionally as she would whip around a corner she would hear voices and would tiptoe up to watch two or three men crouched on the ground, each holding a sack of wine, and shooting dice. She would hide and watch them until the sun went down, marking their actions and words, then tramp home alone whispering to herself in a small voice thick with the sympathy of their wine, “Roll that big eight, sweet Daddy.”

This place which is also a community and a way of living maybe a good name for that would be habitus? although nowadays and hereabouts ussens tend to call it an identity. To switch mythological illustrations, what Odysseus craved wasn't retirement on a mountainous Mediterranean island, or reunion with his wife and child, both of whom he's prepared to skewer, but his identity as ruler of Ithaka.

What baits Eunice isn't so much the spell of music but the promise of capture and transportation. Brown's a thin, helpfully color-coded line who can reel her out of flailing air and into Carolina mud, a properly ordained authority to release her family curse (and deliver her into bondage) by way of ceremonial abjuration:

“We-ell, you being fayed and all, I doesn’t want to get in no trouble.”

The night was warm and easy, and it came from Eunice as easy as the night. “Man, I’m not fayed.”

He straightened up and squinted. “Well, what the hell. Is you jiving, woman, or what? You sure has me fooled if you isn’t.”

“You mean you dragged me out in the middle of the night into this alley just because you thought I was fayed? That’s the damndest thing I’ve ever heard.” But she knew it was not funny, neither for herself nor for him.

Blacksnake broke in on her thoughts. “Well, baby, if you says so, I believes you. But you sure doesn’t look like it, and you doesn’t even act like it, but you’s OK with me if you really is what you says you is. Here, get youself a good taste on this bottle.”

Eunice took the bottle and drank deeply, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

(In many more-or-less timeless ways, Mojo Hand is the first novel of a very young writer. On this point of faith, though, it's specifically an early Sixties novel: that the Real Folk Blues holds power to transmute us into Real Folk.)

2. "Meet me in the bottom, bring my boots and shoes." - Lightnin' Hopkins

Having passed customs inspection, Eunice considers her down-home away from home:

Until this night she had been outside of the cage, but now she had joined them forever.

About twenty-hours later, "the cage" materializes as a two-week stretch in the Wake County jail:

But soon she came to learn that it was easier here. Everything was decided. That gave her mind freedom to wander through intricate paths of frustration.

Jail isn't a detour; it's fully part of Eunice's destination, and afterward she's told "Well, you sure as shit is one of us now." But what sort of freedom is this?

Some people intuit a conflict between "free will" and "reasoned action." (Because reasons would be a cause and causality would be determinism? Because decisions are painful and willful freedom should come warm and easy?) Or, as Eunice reflects later, in a more combative state of mind:

Since her parents had built and waged life within their framework, in order to obvert it fully she, too, had to build or find a counterstructure and exist within it at all costs. The difference lay in that theirs was predicated on a pseudo-rationality whereas the rational was neither integral nor peripheral in hers; she did not consider it at all. To her the excesses of the heart had to be able to run rampant and find their own boundaries, exhausting themselves in plaguing hope.

When the pretensions of consciousness become unbearable, one option is to near-as-damn-it erase them: minimize choices; make decision mimic instinct; hand your reins to received stereotype and transient impulse. Lead the "simple" life of back-chat, rough teasing, subsistence wages, steady buzz, sudden passions, unfathomable conflicts, limitless boredom,and clumsy violence. A way of life accessible to the abject of all races and creeds in this great land, including my own.

All of which Phillips describes with appropriately loving and exasperated care, although she's forced to downshift into abstract poeticisms to traverse the equally essential social glue of sex.

It was completely effortless, with the songs on the jukebox marking time and the clicking pool balls countersounding it all until the sounds merged into one, becoming inaudible. Eunice felt the ease, the lack of rigidity, and relaxed. She would learn to live cautiously and underhandedly so that she might survive. She would learn to wrangle her way on and on to meet each moment, forgetting herself in the next and predestroyed by the certainty of the one to come.

3. "At the center, there is a perilous act" - Robin Blaser

In this pleasant fashion uncounted weeks pass. Long enough for a girl to become pregnant; long enough for whatever internal clock ended Brown's earlier affairs to signal an campaign of escalating abuse which reviewers called mysterious, although it sounded familiar enough to me.

Blacksnake was Eunice's visa into this country. What happens if the visa's revoked? If our primary goal is to stay put and passive, what can we do when stasis becomes untenable?

Shake it, baby, shake it.

Having escaped into this life, Eunice refuses to escape from it:

There was no sense, she knew, in going back to San Francisco, back home to bring a child into a world of people who were too much and only in awe of their own consciousness. They were as rigid and sterile as the buildings that towered above them.

She'll only accept oscillation within the parameters of her hard-won cage. This cul-de-sac expresses itself in three ways:

It seems perfectly natural for the strictly-local efficacy of the occult to appear at a crisis of sustainability, scuffing novelistic realism in favor of keeping it real. The flashback, though, rips the sequence of time and place to more genuinely unsettling effect, and Phillips handles the operation with such disorienting understatement that this otherwise sympathetic reader sutured the sequence wrong-way-round in memory.

It's unsettling because we register the narrative device as both arbitrary and, more deeply, necessary. Being a self-made self-damned Eurydice, Eunice must look back at herself to secure permanent residence. But when the goal is loss of agency, how can action be taken to preserve it?

Instead, we watch her sleepwalk through mysteriously scripted actions twice over.

4. "Black ghost is a picture, & the black ghost is a shadow too." - Lightnin' Hopkins

Immediately after you start reading Mojo Hand, and well before you watch Eunice Prideaux hauled to Wake County jail, you'll learn that J. J. Phillips preceded her there. If you're holding the paperback reissue, its behind-bars author photo will have informed you that both prisoners were light-skinned teenage girls.

If you've listened to much blues in your life, you'll likely know "Mojo Hand" as a signature number of Lightnin' Hopkins. If you've seen photos of Hopkins on any LPs, the figure of "Blacksnake Brown" will seem familiar as well.

Since comparisons have been made inevitable, contrasts are also in order.

Blacksnake Brown is clearly not the Lightnin' Hopkins who'd played Carnegie Hall, frequently visited Berkeley, and lived until 1982. Eunice is jailed for the crime of looking like a besmirched white woman in a black neighborhood at night; Phillips, on the other hand:

In 1962 I was selected to participate in a summer voter registration program in Raleigh, North Carolina, administered by the National Students Association (NSA). [...] Our group, led by Dorothy Dawson (Burlage), wasn't large and the project was active only for that summer; but during the short time that we were in Raleigh, we managed to register over 1,600 African Americans, which, along with other voter registration programs in the state, surely helped pave the way for Obama's 2008 victory in North Carolina. [...] On the spur of the moment I'd taken part in a CORE-sponsored sit-in at the local Howard Johnson's as part of their Freedom Highways program, which took place the year after the Freedom Rides. [...] Our conviction was of course a fait accompli. We were given the choice of paying a modest fine or serving 30 days hard labor in prison; but the objective was to serve the time as prisoners of conscience, and so we did. In deference to my gender, I was sent to the Wake Co. Jail.

[...] Thus began a totally captivating 30 days an immersive intensive in which I got the kind of real-life education I could never have obtained otherwise.

This unexpectedly welcome "captivation" brings us back to Eunice, however, and thence to Eunice's own brush with voter registration programs:

“I don’t want to register.”

The boy shifted from one flat foot to another and scratched a festering pimple. “But ma’m, it’s important that you try and better your society. Can’t you see that?”

“No, I can’t.”

He paused a moment, and then proceeded. “Whatever your hesitation stems from, it is not good. It is necessary for us all to work together in obtaining the common goal of equality. It is not only equality in spirit; your living standards must be equal. Environment plays an important factor. You must realize also that it is not only your right but your duty to choose the people you wish to represent you in our government. If you do not vote you have no choice in determining how you will live.”

Eunice chuckled as she remembered Bertha back in the jail. She crinkled her eyes and laughed. “Well, sho is, ain’t it.”

In turn, that "festering pimple" suggests some animus drawn from outside the confines of the book. And in an interview immediately following the book's publication, its author came close to outright disavowal:

"I went to jail to see what it was like. I was in Raleigh on a voter registration drive. Somebody asked for restaurant sit-in volunteers sure to be arrested. I was not for or against the cause, I just wanted to go to jail." [...] Slender, with the long, straight hair, wearing the inevitable trousers, strumming the guitar, she also defies authority in her rush to individual freedom. She lives in steady rebellion against the comfortable escapist? atmosphere provided by her parents, both in professional fields and both successful. Her own backhouse, bedroom apartment, her transportation a Yamaha and a huge, black, 5-year-old Cadillac; her calm acceptance of her right to live as she pleases are all a part of the pattern of the new 1966 young.

(For the record, yes, I'm grateful that no one is likely to find any interview I gave at age 22, or to publish any mug shot of me at age 18.)

Forty-three years later, J. J. Phillips positioned Mojo Hand in a broader context: three separate cross-country loops during an eventful three years which she entered as an nice upper-middle-class girl at an elite Los Angeles Catholic college and left as an expelled, furious, disillusioned, blues-performing fry-cook.

Which of these accounts should we believe? Well, all of them, of course. Here, what interests me more is their shared difference from the story of Eunice.

* * *

The older Phillips summarized Mojo Hand as "a story of one person’s journey from a non-racialized state to the racialized real world, as was happening to me."

As always, her words are carefully chosen. In the course of a sentence which asserts equivalence, she shifts from Eunice's singular, focused journey to something that "was happening to" young Phillips. More blatantly, she tips the balance by contrasting "a state" with "the real world."

Contrariwise, someone might describe my own wavering ascent towards Eunice's-and-Phillips's starting point as "one person's journey from a racialized state" (to wit, Missouri) "to the class-defined real world." I'm not that someone, though. Even at the age of Mojo Hand's writing, when my scabrous androgyny was demonstrably irredeemable, I understood that, should I live long enough, my equally glaring whiteness would bob me upwards like a blob of schmaltz. And indeed, although my patrons and superiors have been repeatedly nonplussed by my choices, none ever denied my right to make them.

Whereas, in America, some brave volunteer or another can always be found to remind you that you're black or female. And in the ordinary language of down-home philosophizin', if you can't escape it, it's real: truth can be argued but reality can only be acknowledged, ignored, or changed. If "race" is an unevidenced taxonomy and "racism" is a false ideology, "racism" and "a racialized world" remain real enough to kill depending on time and place.

As does "class." And, like Phillips in Los Angeles, in San Francisco Eunice was born into a particularly privileged socio-economic class. Even if she'd stayed in San Francisco, she could've chosen to remove herself from that class, most likely temporarily, anticipating the "inevitable pattern of the new 1966 young." But merely by having the choice, she would have become in some sense, in some eyes, a fraud.

The Jim Crow South, however, offered any stray members of the striving class at most the choice of "passing," faudulent by definition. Thus, with the mere purchase of a train ticket, properly propertied individuals could reinvent themselves as powerless nonentities. What racialized Eunice and Phillips was travel to a place in which no non-racialized reality existed. What made that racialization lastingly, inescapably "real" was, for Eunice, a permanent change of residence. For Phillips, back in California, it was recognizing a racism which had previously stayed latent or unnoticed, and which continued to be denied in infuriatingly almost-plausible fashion.

5. "But I didn't know what kind of chariot gonna take me away from here." - Lightnin' Hopkins

Returning to the book's one encounter with progressive politics, after Eunice shuts the door on the pimpled young man, Blacksnake is bemused (not for the first time) by her volitional assumption of a cage in which others were born and bred:

“Oh, shit. Woman, I can’t vote. I been to the penitench. [...] Girl, you got some strange things turning ’round in that head of yours. Why did you come here anyway?”

“I don’t know. I just felt like it.”

Eunice sat down on the bed and scratched her head. It was useless to try and find the causes of her being here; she merely was and could never be sure whether it was a true act or a posture of defiance.

Odysseus traveled to reclaim his prior identity. How, though, would someone establish an identity?

By fiat, by fate. With that infallible sixth sense by which we know we were a princess dumped on a bunch of dwarfs, or the infant who was swapped out for a changeling, Eunice knows she's been denied her birthright. Or two birthrights, which Mojo Hand merges:

First, racialization; that is, membership in a race.

Second, the inalienable right and incorrigible drive to make irretrievable mistakes and trigger fatal disasters. In a word, maturity.

Never had she been forced to her knees to beg for the continuation of her existence, nor fight both God and the devil ripping at her soul; never had she been forced to fight to move in the intricate web of scuffle; never had she been forced to fight a woman for the right to a man, nor fought out love with a man. She had never fought for existence; now she would have to.

In well-ordered middle-class mid-century households, these are things parents protected children from, things children couldn't imagine their parents doing. Most of them are part of most adult lives, and once experienced, they're not likely to be forgotten. But depicting them comes easiest when they're assigned to disorderly elements, and a narrative's end is more attended than its torso.

In the novel's introductory parable, a girl who finds the sun (dropped by an old-fashioned Los Angeles pepper tree) is forced by her father to give it up. During her longest residence in Lightnin' Hopkins's Houston neighborhood, Phillips met similar interference: "I especially did not want to suffer the ultimate mortification of being ignominiously carted home by my parents, so I went back to L.A."

If Eunice had been dragged back to San Francisco, that anticlimax would be interpreted as an ironic deflation of a hard-won life. And so, in vengeance for her parents' deracination, Eunice is silently de-parented, and the book instead ends with her both adopting a new mother and waiting to become a new mother.

* * *

The United States between 1962 and 2009 incorporated a whole lot of habitussles, each with its own preferred ways to swing a story. Even as something is done (by us, to us, of us, the passive voice is the voice that rings real) and certainly afterwards we're spun round by potential justifications, motives, excuses, bars, blanks.... Whichever we choose, sho is, ain't it.

One year after 22-year-old J. J. Phillips saw Mojo Hand in print, 25-year-old Samuel R. Delany saw his own version of black Orpheus, A Fabulous, Formless Darkness, published as The Einstein Intersection. Neither fiction much resembles Ovid, and where Phillips mythologizes black community, Delany mythologizes queer difference. What the two writers shared was a reach for "mythology" as that which both describes and controls the actions of the mythological hero: a transcript which is a script; a fate justified as fulfillment of fate.

A story to make sense of senselessness and reward of repeated loss.

What Phillips suffered and enjoyed as an indirect, experimental process of frequently unwelcome discovery and retreat, confrontation and compromise, Eunice is able to consciously hunt as a coherent (if not rationally justifiable) destination. The mythic heroine's one necessary act of mythic agency was to decide to enter that story and, mythically, stay there ever after. The oaks rest in place, thoroughly rooted, frozen in their dance.

Lucky oaks.

 

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.