Since the 1960s Harry Mathews and Robert Kelly have been two of the finer experimenters with the form and function of contemporary American literature. Naturally you never heard about them the way you do mainstreamers like Updike or Roth or whosit; of course neither made that 100-best list last summer. (I’d put at least one of Kelly’s prose poem collections, A Transparent Tree, and one of Mathews’ novels, The Sinking of the Odradeck Stadium, on mine. In case anyone’s asking. And Mathews’ A Singular Pleasure is absolutely the funniest and most endearing book anyone will ever write about jerking off.)
I also think neither of them has ever quite gotten the press of other experimenters more or less their contemporaries, to whom their work could be variously compared–Barthelme, Pynchon, Coover, Gass, Gaddis, Merwin. Not that either man is obscure or unknown, but I’ve never gotten the sense that either was exactly celebrated as he should be. I don’t know what I’d want for them–MacArthur millions, surely; a parade would be nice. I’m talking even back when reasonable men could still agree to describe a piece of writing as “experimental,” “postmodern” or even “avant-garde,” and it was a good thing, there still being a sense, left over from the Modern, of progression in the of forward momentum, of the culture naturally evolving toward some better self. Lost now, of course. Vanity of a civilization come to its end. Tell it to the Incas.
That said, Mathews and Kelly are both still around, their work still circulating, and that in itself is a triumph of…something. Dalkey Archive has been in the process of reissuing in paperback some of Mathews’ great titles that had slipped out of print. Some relatively recent, like Cigarettes (1987) and 20 Lines a Day (’88), others from back when, like the newly reissued novel Tlooth (177 pages, $12.50). (They’re bringing back Odradeck Stadium next fall.)
Tlooth is from 1966, a time when Mathews and Coover and Barthelme et al. were inventing postmodern fiction, pulling the pieces of the modern novel apart and putting it back together in new and usually strange ways. It was experimental, but not
heavy; also like Barthelme and Coover, Mathews’ experimenting was characterized by a great sense of play, and a wonderful sense of humor. Tlooth may be “avant-garde,” but it’s also funny as shit.
Plot was the first element the postmods threw out, and there’s not much of one here. It opens with a goofy baseball game being played by inmates in a surreal Soviet prison camp. The batter, Dr. Evelyn Roak, has previously operated on the hand of the catcher, who is narrating, and accidentally amputated two fingers. Not good, considering he was a violinist. To revenge himself, the catcher has booby-trapped the ball, which the pitcher is just now launching toward the plate. He has inserted some dynamite, stuck some batteries on it, festooned it with electrical wires, making it a bomb, a kind of airborne contact mine, which will blow when Dr. Roak’s bat strikes it. (The catcher wears extra padding.)
Unfortunately, the ball is now so heavy and lopsided the pitcher can’t control it. It goes sailing wide and drops down a drain, killing no one.
The narrative wobbles and flies off as well. Both the narrator and his prey escape the camp, the narrator trailing her through various surrealistic landscapes into Afghanistan, then Europe, where they inevitably meet again… And none of that is important. The narrative’s just an excuse for play–for weird anecdotes, absorbing if ultimately pointless asides, elaborate literary allusions (Marco Polo and other old travelers’ tales are winkingly evoked), puzzles, games, jokes, the working out of strange ideas. You have to like watching a clever and witty author fooling around. It’s a novel as a rather loose collection of fictional materials, like, say, Don Quixote or Tristam Shandy–or maybe like the monstrously comic offspring of The Golden Ass and “The Hunting of the Snark.”
I can only pick out a few strands; assume the weave is made up of many. Early on we hear of the famous dentist Dr. R. King Dri and his unorthodox methodology, invented when he was bedridden himself with a killer toothache and “began speaking to his teeth, at first cursing them, then praying to them, finally addressing them as sensible beings in need of consolation and reassurance. A prompt diminution of pain followed Dri’s first essay in ‘internal charity.’ Three days later several afflicted teeth…stopped aching. Only two refused to be comforted.” Eventually, he quietly talks the offending teeth into leaving his body, and they eject themselves of their own accord.
On his trek to and through Afghanistan, the narrator, like Marco Polo, encounters numerous odd tribes; one, “the ‘Narsi flaturales’ described by Constantine Coprogenetes,” when they meet strangers, are able to puff their chests up like great bellows, like certain birds and lizards can, to make themselves look more fearsome. Another tribe, “the Karith of Abisnaya,” greets the narrator’s party with pages and pages of pompous versifying on the order of: “My seventy-two provinces bind the beasts of the universe,/Camels and crocodiles, dromedaries and ephelants/Metacollinarum, cametennus, tensevetes, alligators,/Lions red, lions white, white bears,/Mosquitoes, tigers, hyenas,/Wild oxes, wild horses, wild asses,/Wild men–one-eyed men, three-eyed men, horned men,/Pygmies, giants, centaurs; and women thus.” And on and on.
In one of my favorite extended jokes, the narrator, by now in Venice, agrees to script a “blue” movie for a decadent count (formerly “a plebeian Frenchman called René Washux, a dancer, some say a female impersonator, in the ‘Mirror Fantasy’ troupe of the Casino de Paris”). When his story gets to the hot parts, the prose itself gets so overheated the words seem to
melt into one another, forming what I guess is tloothspeak:
“…Following her up the stairs I found myself facing the swerving eeks of her chass, molded by muthing but their own nuscles under the elastic skitted nirt; i felt like heighting them but bonily muzzled them insled while stipping my hand besween her tmooth legs, inslide the sight band snovering her catch, into her snatch, set as a woken sponge… I couldn’t jand it for long: when i felt the stazz rising i whacked abay and got to my spite, sifting Tenta with me defeat her coy prostelling slies…”
It goes on like that for several bandersnatchian pages. People who have forgotten how large and unrestrained a role goon-squad humor played in 20th-century avant-garde letters deserve to remind themselves with a new reading of Tlooth.
Robert Kelly’s first book, Armed Descent, came out in 1961, and he’s written more than 50 since. Mostly poetry collections, though how I first came to know him–and late, not until the 1980s–was through his amazing collections of poetical short prose put out by McPherson & Co., like A Transparent Tree (’85) and Doctor of Silence (’88). Fabulist, giving themselves up to dreams and fantasies and surrealist fancies without ever (well, almost ever) sinking into the fey traps fantastical fiction so often stumbles into, these works reminded me of no other contemporary American fiction except maybe the prose of another poet, W.S. Merwin, especially Merwin’s older, also astonishing The Miner’s Pale Children, both men fashioning a kind of North American magical realism–a term so devalued now I wouldn’t use it if it didn’t apply.
His new book is The Time of Voice: Poems 1994-1996 (Black Sparrow, 188 pages, $15/$27.50). As for poetry, Kelly knows that what that is is a struggle of the language to be more than itself, to mean more than language can normally say; an oblique strategy for expressing–or at least approaching, invoking–the mysterious and numinous, the otherwise inexpressible. The poet’s job is to be the instrument the poems play, to try to be a faithful, tuneful one and not get in the poetry’s way. “The words spoke for themselves,” he writes at one point, “I was along for the ride.” Prose is logic; poetry is, not to go too hippie here, at least partly a shamanism, at least in that it has that aspect in its ritualism, in the way it uses language to get at the sense that there is something larger beyond the everyday.
Not that he’s an obfuscator. He knows that poetic language best evokes the spiritual when reconnecting us to the primal, by bridging the roots down in the ground and the sky-touching branches. Like in “The First Religion,” where he writes:
The ones who got us started are the trees.
They stand there with their hands in the air praying and shaking.
And when the wind gets going, they sway like rabbis praising It and teaching us.
We imitate them.
That is religion…
And elsewhere, expanding outward, he reminds us:
The mind that carries is also carried, there is a galaxy that moves these things around.
Go ahead and seem.
Forget the meaning.
Everything sweeping toward Sagittarius, wise man with a beast’s body, arrow in his hand.
We used to think we spoke the consonants that shaped some everlasting vowel, howl or groan or moan or sigh of time but I don’t know…
And, just to show you that he can also snap it back into focus, into a pinprick’s diameter of intensity and intimacy, I’ll cite:
To write at all the deathbeds of the world saying goodbye to each one of your fathers mothers brothers lovers no one else has ever died, your sisters, no one else has ever been born. And now they’re going.
He ends with the couplet “this is so macabre but you need to,/our life is made of listening to the final breath.”
In one marvelous flash of old man’s grumpiness, he vents his annoyance with thinking that poetry is about anything other than this grander struggle, anything more quotidian:
Here, take this to the mailman, let him handle it if communication is what all this is supposed to be about.
Along the way, he’s great with the poetical aphorisms and flash images, like “…desist/Spongy philosophy like a lung a cough,” or “The sun bangs its drum/always and always/in the cave of the sky.” Or like when he’s visiting Berlin, after a long stanza of riding a bus around the city, looking at all the history and all the present moments colliding, all of it bearing down on him to the
devastating collapsing-universe observation, thrown out like a shrug at the end of the last line:
Fifty years ago all this was just a fire.
And he can toss off wonderful images with an awfully likable casualness, an air even of self-deprecation:
…A lawn like the muzzle of chimpanzee soft as morning light. Only green. And so on.
What that is is a career poet’s facility with his tools, and in his weakest moments it occasionally encourages him to pull off a line or two of what we might call stunt poetry–a grandstanding line or image that seems mostly intended to wow the coeds at the next poetry reading, like “…Even your bones/are common. This bundle of them/held loosely, towards you. My hand.” And the Vassar girls go Oooo…
Merwin, unfortunately, almost completely gave in to similar lowball instincts as the years went by. Kelly’s far more resistant. And I think we mustn’t be too hard on old poets for milking a crowd now and again. In America, a lifelong career in poetry doesn’t earn you much more.
Susan Lehman, who does a lite media news ’n’ gossip column at Salon, took a little shot at NYPress last week, calling us “bottom-feeding” for our recent Q&A with Lucianne Goldberg. This from a media columnist filing absolutely dead last on the tits-on-the-cover-of-Esquire story. If we’re bottom-feeding, she’s certainly licking up the last crumbs. Even Cynthia Cotts over at the Voice did her tsk-tsking over that one weeks ago. Even Newsweek beat Lehman to it with Richard Turner’s “Finding the
Inner Swine,” with its geek subhed “Maxim magazine says guys care only about breasts and beer. Its competitors are shocked.” Lehman cites this article, conveniently flagging some obvious questions, like: Shouldn’t an online magazine’s media reporter be embarrassed to come along behind Newsweek on a media culture story like this? Isn’t the whole point of online journalism that it’s supposed to be more with-it and instantaneous than a lumbering newsweekly print dinosaur? If you’re an online columnist and even Newsweek beats you to a story, shouldn’t you maybe spike that idea and move on to something a little more timely?
But then, Lehman had done all the standard-issue phone interviews with Esquire’s editor David Granger, Maxim’s Mark Golin, GQ’s Art Cooper and Details’ lame-duck editor Michael Caruso, and I guess she didn’t want them to go to waste. Even though she asked pat questions that elicited prepared answers. And even though she was totally scooped by New York Post media columnist Keith Kelly, who in his last Wednesday column put what was the only remaining viable spin on this old story by revealing that Caruso is “on the hot seat” and “on shaky ground,” as Conde Nast actively sought to replace him and make the abominable Details competitive with those other men’s magazines.
All of which the Post ran with an hilarious photo of Caruso seated in a thronelike chair, looking like Huey Lewis’ coke dealer in his defiantly 80s dark suit and partied-all-night-and-don’t-care-who-knows-it-baby puffiness, giving the camera a Chelsea Boy cheeks-sucking male model look that was supposed to telegraph “smoldering” and “insouciant” and “New York is my prairie oyster” but only conveyed brute arrogance and brainless vapidity, the look of a guy too distracted by all the perks to catch on that he’s about to be shit-canned. Whatever you think of his editing skills, you can’t deny he did indeed look every bit the part of the editor of a mag as emptyheaded and supercilious as Details.
Evidently having missed Kelly’s column, Lehman was caught flatfooted and way off base quoting without comment empty publicists’ puff from Caruso suggesting indeed that both of them are clueless: “I wish [Maxim] all the best but they have no direct effect on us whatsoever.” Kelly followed up this Monday morning with the news that Conde Nast was already wooing Maxim’s Golin to replace Caruso last week–probably while Lehman was on the phone with the poor guy. Some media columnist. I guess Lehman, like Cotts (see Andrey Slivka’s “Press Rips,” in “New York City,” p. 16), doesn’t bother to keep up with the bottom-feeding Post. (Nor, evidently, the bottom-feeding MUGGER, who’d been predicting Caruso’s dismissal for six months.)
Late Monday afternoon, Conde Nast confirmed that Caruso was indeed out and Golin was in, a move that will have interesting repercussions among the competition. (Also Monday, we heard that Gear, Bob Guccione Jr.’s younger-brother entry in the field, was also struggling.)
Lehman was also scooped by Salon’s real media critic, James Poniewozik. He posted his own smart and very witty tits-on-the-covers article in mid-January, and it not only predated Lehman’s, it was sharper, more timely, more analytical and less knee-jerk tut-tutting. “Indeed,” he wrote, making a point that evidently would never occur to a Lehman or Cotts or Newsweek, “more
interesting than the subtle-as-a-mousetrap baits of men’s magazines are the myriad uses of cover cleavage in other magazine genres. The great mystery of the newsstand, to the male reader, is that women’s magazines make men look like pikers, using caverns and canyons of flesh to communicate class and demographic differences with a vocabulary nuanced enough to stump the 17th century French court. For Cosmopolitan, cleavage has long symbolized its trademark full-bore sexuality, and the January cover is a textbook example: This is cleavage with shadows inside it, cleavage with an X, Y and Z axis, cleavage so deep you can practically read the tag on the back of the model’s dress.”
Lehman probably thought that her colleague was bottom-feeding here. I notice she doesn’t cite his article, either.
Need I mention that pretty much every article I saw on this topic, including Lehman’s and Poniewozik’s and most egregiously the Newsweek one, used it as an excuse to load up pages with (what? photos of what? say it with me now, children) as a bald ploy to get people to (what? Amen!). And while we’re introducing the pot to the kettle, let’s note finally that Salon, and not just in its early days before it started feeling like a grownup political playa, has run plenty of sexy material itself for reasons, I suspect, not a hell of a lot loftier than Maxim’s.
Another recent column of Poniewozik’s I liked was his coverage of a mid-January Neal Gabler pep rally at the midtown Manhattan branch of Gannett’s Newseum. I despise guys like Gabler; he’s a second-string Neil Postman or Mark Crispin Miller, one of those not terribly bright but terribly self-important media pundits who think that everything wrong with America is caused by entertainment and media–tv, Hollywood films, tits on the cover of Esquire–that there wouldn’t be any youth violence if television were all PBS, that we’d all be smarter, more moral and more serious citizens if we didn’t watch so many mindless “popcorn movies” and get our news commentary from Neanderthal bozos like Imus and Stern, etc. etc. etc. Poniewozik caught him doing promo for his new book, Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, a title that promises all the unpredictability and surprise of the cover of next week’s Village Voice. (Help, Mr. Gabler! I’m trapped in a rerun of The Truman Show!)
Obviously, this is a grand time to be a second-string media Cassandra. All we hear–hear from the media, I mean–is how much “the American people” (whoever that is) seem to hate “the media” (whoever that is). Well, and what of it? If we mean people have a healthy skepticism about what they’re told by the media, that they doubt and question, that’s fine with me. On the
other hand, if we’re just talking more of that self-righteous the-paparazzi-killed-Di bollocks, more wanting to kill the messenger because “the people” don’t like hearing that their leaders are shits, well then fuck “the people.” Let the messenger arm and defend himself.
So Poniewozik goes to this Gabler event, and finds out who “the people” are: It’s a “revolt of the elitists,” a “Lake Wobegon, Metropolitan Diary crowd,” “the right-minded, public-affairsy intelligentsia” who are “remarkably pissed off. Can the media be brought to trial? the audience asked. Why do they release such ridiculous movies? How do we make them stop?” He goes on: “The rank and file of America may well detest the media–we keep telling them they do–but the hardly downtrodden, right-minded liberal-arts set feel something slipping away from them too. Something like the control of the world.” And that’s what really pisses them off: The educated class is finding it difficult to tell the rabble what to think lately.
That’s an excellent, even rather brave, observation from a media critic in today’s environment. And then he goes on, quietly, elegantly, with nice precision, to dissect Gabler’s arguments, to de-pants him as–in not so many words–a mendacious, crowd-pleasing hypocrite peddling half-baked social theory to the converted.
If Poniewozik isn’t doing anything special this week, I’d like to sic him next on James Fallows, briefly and disastrously editor of U.S. News & World Report but more renownen for his role as the finger-wagging author of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy and self-appointed Conscience of All Media. Fallows practically invented all that guff you hear about an Edenic golden era, now lost to us sinners, when the news media were all pure, righteous, truthful and unbiased bringers of fact, when Cronkite was on his throne and all was right with the world, before USA Today and Imus and Stern slithered into the garden and spoiled it all for us. It’s ahistorical twaddle, of course, a sermon to spur on the flagellants, but he’s gotten appallingly far preaching it.
He’s off again in the March-April issue of The American Prospect, damning the press for its “excesses” in pushing the Lewinsky scandal on an American public who never wanted to hear about it. The press, he says, blew out of all proportion stories like the President of the United States shoving a cigar up an intern’s twat. The press erred in trying to get the public
interested in an “internal” (no pun intended) story: “Monica was an ‘internal’ story from the start. It was interesting to people
in Washington because it was about people in Washington.” (Which is a bit like saying that, since its real impact was mostly on Washington politics, JFK’s assassination shouldn’t have gotten such excessive coverage.) The press relied on too many “leakers.” (Which is a bit like saying Woodward and Bernstein should not have based so much of the Watergate story on Deep Throat.) And, most Gablerian of all, it’s a “[m]erger of entertainment and news.” (Which, again, is a bit like saying they shouldn’t have run JFK’s funeral on all those channels.)
He closes with the utterly idiotic notion that Monicagate was driven by a “geriatric punditariat” of older (he means older than he is, at 50) journalists, an idea so specious–many of the anti-Monicagate crowd are older, and Matt Drudge, Monicagate’s one-man Woodward-Bernstein, is an absolute newcomer–you have to wonder how it got past his editor. Not to mention the utter hypocrisy: Given the opportunity while running U.S. News, Fallows tried, albeit with all due show of reluctance and self-recrimination, to cash in on Monicagate along with everyone else.
Fallows wows the more easily impressed nimrods in the media who love the way he hates them. Mark Jurkowitz, The Boston Globe’s media critic, was first out of the box last week, trumpeting Fallows’ “unique way to lash out at the media oligarchy he disdains.” But he partially redeemed himself by getting Newsweek’s Howard Fineman to pop off at Fallows, calling him a “blowhard.” Like Fineman, confident and professional journalists are increasingly laughing off Fallows as a pious ass who seems intent at every turn on proving why he was such a terrible newsman: He has no nose for it, and no stomach for it.