Completing the final draft of my latest book, experiencing giddiness, a strong sense of anticipation, as well as a certain amount of anxiety—I mean, how are folks going to react to 40+ “routines”, satiric snippets, many of which are devoted to controversial or touchy subjects? We’ve become so thin-skinned and defensive these days that the most innocuous remark can be misread as bigoted or insensitive, topical humor regarded with suspicion and those holding dissenting views treated like latter day heretics and pariahs.
A guy on the far Left putting down political correctness, attacking the notion that our society should focus on social issues, at the expense of much more pressing concerns like poverty, food and health security, the looming threats posed by climate change and global warming? Not advisable, one runs the risk of being accused of apostasy or, even worse, labeled a “hater”, which, these days, is akin to being called a pedophile.
At various points during the conception and writing of this book I’ve paused, questioning my motivation, my aims…even my sanity. It would be far easier keeping my head down and mouth shut, not responding to the threat to freedom of expression and personal liberty presented by mushy-headed liberals trying to socially engineer their brave new world. Except…all my life I have been a progressive and I don’t want to see that agenda hijacked by a small, vocal group of people who wish to control what we talk about and the words we’re allowed to use in conversation and debate.
I also have a very strong hunch that we are being deliberately distracted with social causes (like identity politics) because the Powers That Be don’t want to be forced to make the massive, systemic changes necessary to confront the hegemony of the wealthy, the rampant consumerism threatening the future viability of the planet, the dark underbelly of capitalism.
All my adult life I have spoken out against censorship and will not, as an artist and human being, have my ideas, my imagination and themes, controlled by anyone else, regardless of how fine and honorable their intentions might seem.
I know my book, once it’s released, will cause offense, will annoy and alarm people, maybe a lot of people, but that’s kind of the point. We can’t be weak-kneed when we are defending something as fundamental as freedom of speech.
In about two weeks I’m going to be hosting an informal reading in our home, inviting a few friends and acquaintances over to hear excerpts from the book. A public workshop of the material. I’m curious to see what their reaction will be; it will be an excellent gauge as to how its contents will be received by people who don’t know me or my body of work.
Gonna be an interesting evening…
Further: hope to have a mockup of the cover ready to show you in the next week or ten days…I will be posting excerpts from the book around mid-April, releasing electronic versions of the complete text by the end of that month…there might also be an audio recording of my wee “house concert”, which (if it’s of sufficient quality) I’ll post either here or on my Bandcamp page.
It was yet another discussion about the state of the economy, the various financial crises threatening to de-stabilize currencies, yadda, yadda, yadda.
One of the commentators made an off-the-cuff remark that gobsmacked me. He referred to savings, those little nest eggs we’ve tucked away so we aren’t eating cat food in our dotage, as “money hoarding”.
The inference being that the money we’re saving for a rainy day should be put into circulation (they’re already doing it to our pensions, of course), placing our future at the mercy of the vicissitudes of the marketplace.
Think about that.
These motherfuckers have got us to the point where we’re stretched to the limit, credit-wise—maxed out on five different cards, our overdrafts and lines of credit bursting at the seams…and now they want access to our savings.
The economy must keep chugging along, doncha know, the machine can only be sustained by spending more, more, MORE.
You talk about bubbles and recessions and depressions and downturns and negative growth.
Money is going to run out long before oil.
Maybe Chuck Eisenstein has the answer (or part of it)?
What comes after capitalism?
And, frankly, ain’t the world better off without it?
It’s Thanksgiving for our American cousins—it strikes me that late November is a weird time to be giving thanks, especially if you happen to live above the Mason-Dixon Line and your kids have already built a congregation of snowmen in your front yard.
And, frankly, I don’t need the excuse of a national holiday to carve up a turkey and then subsist for the next week on turkey leftovers, turkey sandwiches and, finally, turkey soup (sorry, I just drooled all over my keyboard). Turkey, mashed potatoes and corn on the cob, with pumpkin pie for dessert. If I somehow manage to gain admission through the Pearly Gates I fully expect that to be the first meal St. Peter and his horde of super-efficient seraphim waiters place in front of me.
* * * * *
Yes, indeed, busy times here at Burns Central: Sherron seems to have been on the road since her first day back at work in September. Driving hither and yon throughout her massive, far-flung school division, giving workshops and presentations. She’s seen more of this area of the province than this homebody ever will.
Both my sons are deeply involved in their individual obsessions, namely, submission wrestling and film-making. Sam and his creative partner Sean hope to have a short movie ready to enter in the “Youth” component of the Yorkton Film Festival and are collaborating on a script. I accompanied Liam to his twice-a-week wrestling session last night and my 48 year old body recoiled and quaked when I saw how those young lads (and one lass) were bending and twisting each other, their bodies impossibly elastic. I was one of those seriously inept, uncoordinated kids who couldn’t even stand on his head so watching my athletic oldest son going through the paces with grace and strength fills me with immeasurable pleasure…and pride.
Meanwhile, I continue to labor away on my western novel, The Last Hunt. Two consecutive weeks of 12 hour days, grinding and polishing, adding in some of the research material I gathered during my Montana sojourn this summer. Still insisting that I will release the novel in late March (2012), come hell or high water. But it ain’t been easy and my body is feeling the effects of the strain.
You’d think after 25+ years I would have learned how to pace myself, manage my time and energy more effectively. Er, no. Instead, I completely immerse myself in a project for prolonged intervals, work myself into a state of exhaustion and then, literally when my body-mind-spirit can take no more, I pronounce the story/novel finished…and collapse. At that point, I usually come down with a nasty virus which lays me out for a week (complete with cold sores, intestinal problems…ah, fun).
How does that gibe with your methods?
And then I read a comment by self-publishing’s latest superstar, Amanda Hocking. Yes, she of a million Kindle sales. She states, without an ounce of self-consciousness, that she writes her juvenile vampire novels in about 2-4 weeks. That’s right, all you fuckheads who were stupid enough to download her awful tripe, a month (usually less) to write a novel. And some of you “writers” out there actually hold her up as an example of a successful author, someone you’d like to emulate. Message to you wannabe assholes: I spit in your face. You disgust me. May your fingers rot off your hands and your putrid brains liquify in your paper-thin skulls. Leprosy and ALS are too good for you. I loathe you and what you and your ilk are doing to literature. You are nothing more than ambulatory turds.
But I won’t cede the field to you, do you hear me? I refuse to allow your excremental scribbling to carry the day. To my last, dying breath I will be composing literate, intelligent, innovative fiction, even if only six people on the planet read it. I will follow the lead of the Masters, write in defiance of all the trends and market niches, write despite the Amanda Hockings of the world and the offal they disgorge. Hocking will be nonexistent in a very short time, her moment in the sun is almost up—let her have her money, it will keep her warm as she wallows on literature’s scrap heap, where all the non-talented hacks end up.
I’ll trust posterity and put my faith in the notion that as long as humankind exists, there will be discerning readers and that, eventually, my work will find the audience it deserves (even if I’m long gone).
I’d rather work for nothing than be stinkin’ rich and unable to look at myself in the mirror.
Which begs the question: what price do you put on your soul?
“B.C.” comic strip by Johnny Hart
***Reviews of new books by Chuck Palahniuk, Haruki Murakami, Alessandro Baricco & James Othmer ***
Meet J.P. Yates, noted prognosticator and forecaster of things to come. His presence at conferences and corporate retreats is de rigueur, his opinions on THE NEXT BIG THING much sought after by world leaders and gilded CEO’s. But Yates, as our story begins, is suffering a crisis of faith: he no longer believes the future can be predicted and he’s tired of all the moral and philosophical compromises he’s been making in order to secure his lofty position and cozy lifestyle.
Not only that, but his fiancé has just dumped him. And. He. Never. Saw. It. Coming. A futurist who’s, yes, short-sighted. From the moment Yates opens the “Dear John” letter on the plane, everything starts to fall apart. A fierce bout of boozing leads to a rambling, incendiary speech before the well-heeled and well-connected in South Africa. It’s an attempt to commit professional suicide and it nearly succeeds. The next thing he knows, he’s getting stomped in his hotel room, shunned by colleagues and approached by two scary operators who claim to represent American corporate interests. Their names are, get this, Johnson and Johnson.
Mr. Othmer misses few opportunities to lampoon and skewer Western culture and its metastacizing tendencies. Nothing is too sacred and the level of cynicism is refreshing. In a not so subtle swipe at entities like the Gates Foundation, one of Mr. Othmer’s characters observes:
“(These) billionaires make me sick. They think now that they’re rich, they can satisfy their egos, alleviate their guilt, by thinking their accidental windfall somehow means they’re geniuses, cosmically ordained and therefore eminently qualified to solve the world’s problems—AIDS, loose nukes, illiteracy. They’re delusional enough to think that they matter more than others in a larger sense. They think, Now that I’ve made billions on a search engine that can locate highly specialized subgenres of kiddie porn at thrice the speed of light, I’m going to teach the world to read. When in truth they’re rewriting history to say that their original business models, the ones that made them obscenely rich, were not driven by greed and hubris but by some larger calling to transform the world.”
Zang. Somewhere Joseph Heller, Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut and H.L. Mencken are clapping and whistling in approval.
Yates can no longer serve the interests of consumerism and has no desire to advance the cause of the type of people the Johnsons work for. He wants out of the rat race, frustrated by his “lack of ability or desire to change the world”. But the Johnsons aren’t easily dissuaded and soon Yates finds himself jetting around the globe on some obscure mission for his spymasters, having close encounters with an Inuit fish-woman in Greenland and a fascistic telecom king on his island hideaway in Fiji. He witnesses a car-bombing in Milan and narrowly escapes death in the Middle East.
The Futurist is well-paced, cleverly scripted, as bitter as poisoned water. Mr. Othmer is a skilled and fearless author. Yates, despite his attendant flaws and weaknesses, is an endearing and credible creation. He truly wants to be decent, the kind of person his sturdy, honest father would respect. At its core, the novel really represents his pursuit of happiness, a calm, clear refuge in the eye of a monster hurricane, primal forces rushing safely by.
We look to the future for redemption, often forgetting to register the sins we’re accumulating here, now, acts of malice and negligence that make the notion of salvation seem so attractive…and so fleeting.
Chuck Palahniuk has made a career out of fearlessly going where no one has dared or wanted to go before. In his best novels—Fight Club, Choke and Lullaby—he traverses these dark countries with bravado and imaginative leaps that are truly admirable. His nonfiction essays, collected in Stranger Than Fiction, reveal a man who is not afraid of casting that same unsparing glance at the real world and the places he comes from.
Rant, his latest novel, is composed of reminiscences and testimonials from over fifty individuals, each of them adding a piece to the puzzle that was Rant Casey. The opening line is a killer: “Like most people, I didn’t meet and talk to Rant Casey until after he was dead”. The men and women offering their views are drawn from every period of Rant’s life and provide conflicting versions of events. Some prove to be unreliable, self-serving narrators, if not outright liars. Then there are those who have formed a kind of latterday cult, with Rant Casey playing the role of unlikely savior. Collectively these people provide a tantalizing, if inconsistent, portrait of a very unique specimen of humanity:
-as a child Rant loved to stick his hand into any hole he could find and hope something would bite him
-the young rascal also concocted a money-laundering scheme using stashes of found coins and enlisting the help of…the tooth fairy
-he became infected with a virulent form of rabies and knowingly, enthusiastically spread the contagion to others
-at some point he stumbled across a method of defeating the “grandfather paradox’, learned how to travel in time and, oh yeah, possibly achieved immortality
In short, this Rant Casey fella was one unusual hombre.
Rant is, at times, compelling and chilling, depicting a plausible, unsettling view of the near future, a society where from infancy people are fitted with ports to “boost” sensory experiences recorded by others. It is a decidedly dystopian world where curfews divide “nighttimers” and “daytimers” and a segment of the population “tag” (crash) vehicles to get their kicks. It is a vision that will strike a resonant cord with fans of David Cronenberg, J.G. Ballard and, possibly, William Gibson.
But the final section of the book is confusing as Rant’s time travel scheme is debated and fleshed out by his acolytes and detractors. In a book so grounded in tactile sensations and spasms of gritty realism, the notion seems far-fetched and out of place. I also think that the voices of those testifying aren’t distinctive enough, they should be more dissimilar in cadence, tone and word choice. As a result they are often indistinguishable and that gives the book a one-dimensional feel.
Mr. Palahniuk is an writer of unquestionable skill and originality, his body of work provides ample evidence of his twisted talent. But in his last two efforts in particular, Rant and Haunted, we see a man trying perhaps a bit too hard to top himself. In the case of Haunted, he spared no detail, presenting us with scenes of graphic carnage and depravity that, ultimately, undermined the author’s best intentions. Rant is a creation of a different order and, while nowhere near as intense, it lacks a central core. It is a conceit, a concept rather than a fully-fledged novel.
The problem may lie with the format he has chosen. An account that features over fifty characters, offering a myriad of opinions and speculations, is bound to be unfocussed, lacking coherence. While no one expects a Chuck Palahniuk novel to boast a conventional narrative, peopled by folks we interact with every day, we do expect a good, entertaining read. Rant doesn’t fit the bill. As an exercise it is of interest but as a book it is a cold, uninvolving reading experience.
How dare Alessandro Baricco. The nerve of the man.
He has taken an acknowledged world classic and, gulp, tampered with it. Shortened it, hacked it to pieces. Cut out anything to do with the gods, pared scenes down, added narrative subjectivity and, worst of all, included additional material.
But despite his abominable behavior, this annoying display of chutzpah, Mr. Baricco’s Iliad works. Not always, there are modernistic interjections that annoy, as when Odysseus pipes up during one exchange: “We’ll let him go and when he gets closer we’ll jump him, all right?” (Pg. 67). How much of this is attributable to Mr. Baricco and how much of the fault lies with his English translator is debatable. Robert Fagles, my favourite translator of Homer, has been taken to task for committing similar sins. But the source material is so strong, the power of Homer’s original vision so sweeping and compelling that even this condensed, tarted up version draws the reader in and holds their attention to the last page.
Dividing the book into sections, each narrated in the first person by one of the principals was a risky move but it does have its merits. The characters, their motivations, strengths and weaknesses assume a more solid shape, shedding some of their mythical status. Odysseus, Priam, Agamemnon, Hector and Achilles are humanised, rendered more familiar to modern eyes and ears. Deleting the gods and emphasizing the human nature of the conflict imparts more emotion and real blood to the battle scenes.
Alessandro Baricco, it must be said, has his detractors. Many consider him a poseur, his works derivative or (tut tut) self-consciously “artsy”. I am familiar with him mainly because of his 2003 collaboration with the French musical duo Air. “City Reading” was a spoken word album (the translation, again by Ms. Goldstein, printed in the accompanying liner notes) set to music. It was a Western, a classic revenge fable with a twist ending.
I enjoyed “City Reading” and, despite some quibbles, I find much to praise in An Iliad. The end notes for the book are illustrative, as when Mr. Baricco elaborates on why Homer’s account of the siege of Troy retains its relevance to modern readers:
“The beauty of war…expresses its centrality in human experience, conveys the idea that there is nothing else, in human experience, that enables one to truly exist. What the Iliad perhaps suggests is that pacifism, today, must not forget or deny that beauty, as if it had never existed. To say and to teach that war is hell and that’s all is a damaging lie. Although it sounds terrible, we must remember that war is hell—but beautiful. Men have always thrown themselves into it, drawn like moths to the fatal light of the flame. There is no fear, or horror of themselves, that has succeeded in keeping them from the flame, because in it they find the only possible recompense for the shadows of life. For this reason, today, the task of a true pacifism should not be to demonize war excessively so much as to understand that only when we are capable of another kind of beauty will we be able to do without what war has always offered us.”
Poseur? Maybe. But he makes an excellent point, don’t you think?
A rather modest offering from Haruki Murakami, nowhere near as metaphysical, surreal or genre-bending as most of his other efforts. Which is not to say After Dark isn’t an agreeable and thoroughly literate tale, it just doesn’t have the scope and virtuoso stylings of previous novels like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or, most recently, Kafka On The Shore.
Told in interlocking narratives, After Dark details one late fall night in Tokyo, as seen through the eyes of a variety of characters, some likable, others exhibiting sociopathic or criminal tendencies. Occasionally, Mr. Murakami employs a brilliant point of view shift where we float above the action like an invisible, omnipotent camera—it allows a cinematic overview, a device Mr. Murakami uses sparingly but to good effect.
There is something magical going on in Tokyo on this particular evening and the author gives us a hint when he writes that some locations and enchanted hours “open secret entries into darkness in the interval between midnight and the time the sky grows light. None of our principles have any effect there. No one can predict when or where such abysses will swallow people, or where they will spit them out” (pg. 168).
Ari Asai had slipped into one such dark place. One day she announces to her family that she is going to sleep and doesn’t appear to wake for two months. Her family holds out slender hope for her eventual recovery and the reconcliation her younger sister tries to initiate in the closing pages of the book is a moving scene. But before she climbs into bed with her ailing sister, nineteen year old Mari Asai traverses midnight streets, experiencing aspects of life previously denied her. She visits a “love hotel” and gets to know some of its denizens, rekindles a relationship with an aspiring jazz musician and has a brush with the Japanese underworld.
This is modern myth-making, possessing “equal levels of sorcery and functionality. It has been handed down from ancient times with darkness and sent back from the future with light” (pg. 49).
Mr. Murakami, like German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder, can take a tale that is essentially a melodrama and infuse it with depth and textures that enable a rather simple story to transcend sentimentality and treacle. While the conclusion of After Dark is affirming, it does not tie up every loose end, resolve all the story threads or punish the guilty. That is to his credit.
After Dark is an excellent introduction to the work of this Japanese master and will undoubtedly lead astute readers to more challenging—and rewarding–efforts in his canon. It is not as intellectually demanding or menacing as some of his darker, more substantive efforts. Its charm is undeniable, however, and while it casts a brighter, cheerier light than many of his other works, it also presents an interesting contrast and shows Mr. Murakami to be an author of many moods and depths. So much the better.