Bass guitars & Barry Hannah

Update #1
It’s summer. It’s hot. It’s time for a new essay. Consequently, I’ve got a new essay out (or is it “up”?) at The Collapsar. It’s called “The Bass Guitar as a Mode of Being,” and it’s about that wonderful activity of playing the bass guitar. You might think there’s not much to say about playing the bass, but you would be wrong.

After the essay went up, a friend notified me of this old Kids in the Hall bit, which I hadn’t seen before (which is probably for the best; their jokes are better than mine).

And then, last week New Yorker writer Matthew Trammell had a piece about the musician Thundercat, and Trammell has some interesting things to say about the bass as well.

And finally, finally, though I am not in the market to acquire a new bass (sadly), if I were, and if I were dishing out bass-buying advice, I would first watch this video and then I would buy one of those Sire basses.

Update #2
I’ve also got a review in the latest issue of The Quarterly Conversation. It covers Michael Bible’s novel Sophia, which I enjoyed, and which I sorted into the long line of literature that trails Barry Hannah. As a premise for the review, I argue that there is a Hannah tradition now. Hannah seems like one of those writers whose large, almost overbearing influence isn’t acknowledged in current literary criticism, while being constantly acknowledged among writers. Though perhaps there’s tons of discussion of this and I’m just not reading in the right places.

There wasn’t room in the review to mention Padgett Powell, but he is the preeminent Hannah writing today, perhaps even eclipsing Hannah himself. His sentences are beautifully ugly and create their own vernacular; he manages to write eloquently without slipping into a fussy, overly self-aware mode of high writing. I don’t know how he does it. It sounds like someone speaking but not in any way anyone has spoken before.

Another stray thought: the original Hannah was probably Beckett.

P.S. Adam Dorn is awesome.

Mirrors, carried down roads

I’m happy to report that I have a new essay up at Open Letters Monthly. It’s called “My Disappearance” and it’s about teaching creative writing, David Foster Wallace, the idea of mentors, being turned into a fictional character, and John Barth. And so much more!

Well, not really: that’s actually what it’s about, but you know, spooled out into many more words and riveting anecdotes. Anyway, please go check it out. I can’t think of any pithy, meta angle to take on this piece; it’s already fairly meta as it is.

Okay, I lied: here are two meta-bits. In the essay, there’s some stuff about funhouse mirrors, à la Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, and this has gotten me thinking about weird mirror effects. I’ve only taken a few selfies thus far in my life, which probably tells you more about my age and disposition than I care to admit, but one of them was in an elevator, alone, just as the doors closed. It was one of those elevators whose door interior was all reflective, and I had two competing reflections of myself sliding toward each other on each half, except that when they met and sealed me in, my head disappeared. The rest of my wide body reflected, but my noggin was erased. And that’s the photo I got. I’m not sure where that photo is at the moment, or I would post it. It’s lost somewhere in the ever-expanding junk drawer of digital documentation. Someone should become the Marie Kondo of data storage.

Second, Graceland. Everyone should visit Graceland, not just because Elvis lived there but because the combination of irony and sentiment and kitsch whirs together into something that ends up feeling like pathos. But one of the many great moments in Graceland, when you take the tour, is when you walk down the stairs into Elvis’s basement. The walls and the ceiling of the stairwell are completely covered in mirrors, and the panoramic reflection of yourself and the rest of the tourists is overwhelming. If there is a heaven, Elvis is there, giggling.

Note on Marilynne Robinson

I’m happy to report that I have a review in the latest issue of The Quarterly Conversation, this time of Marilynne Robinson’s new collection of essays The Givenness of Things.

And now here is a little thought fragment that did not make it into the review: In the review I joke briefly about the idea of Robinson running for president and dicuss the interview/conversation between her and President Obama that appeared recently in the New York Review of Books. In that talk, which is more than anything a chance for Obama to interview a writer he admires, Robinson discusses her parents:

The President: Were your parents into books, or did they just kind of encourage you or tolerate your quirkiness?

Robinson: There was great tolerance in the house for quirkiness. No, it’s a funny thing because on the one hand, I’m absolutely indebted to my origins, whatever they are, whatever that means. On the other hand, with all love and respect, my parents were not particularly bookish people.

The President: Well, that’s why you have good sense along with sort of an overlay of books on top of good sense. What did your mom and dad do?

Robinson: My mother was a stay-at-home mother. My father was a sort of middle-management lumber company guy.

The President: But they encouraged it.

Robinson: You know what, they were the adults and we were the kids, you know what I mean? Sort of like two species. But if they noticed we were doing something — drawing or painting or whatever we were doing — then they would get us what we needed to do that, and silently go on with it. One of the things that I think is very liberating is that if I had lived any honest life, my parents would have been equally happy. I was under no pressure.

Now, compare this parental residue to a real-life presidential candidate, whose parents are a known entity: Jeb Bush. A few weeks ago, Jeb! had this exchange:

The next morning in Manchester, after a child asked what it was like to grow up the son of a president, Bush told a room full of kids that his father’s approval weighed on him.

“All he had to do was say, ‘I’m disappointed in you,’ and it would send me in a deep, spiraling depression,” he said.

I’m struck by the overwhelming sadness of that statement — how haunted and trapped he must feel. Think of having to run for president in order to alleviate your father’s disappointment in you, or perhaps to preempt it.

And then think, on the other side, the Robinson side, of the freedom that she received instead, a freedom that comes from a kind of love, almost a careless love, almost a form of inattention. As someone who is now a parent myself, I am haunted by these two anecdotes. It could be argued that Jeb is the much more successful adult in many contemporary, measurable ways, and yet one doesn’t have to pay much attention to perceive who the more seemingly content figure is, spiritually or otherwise. In that race, Robinson wins by a landslide.

Can walk, chew gum

When I was in fifth grade and about to join middle school band, the band director at the time was trying to dissuade me from being a percussionist. “Anyone who can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time can play drums,” he said.

Now, being the son of a drummer, this was like being told you came from a blighted people — a hunchback-and-boil–type people. The band director needed trombonists, and I admittedly didn’t have the lip fortitude to handle the trumpet, which I’d been eyeing. I stuck with drums.

But these many years later I still have a hard time walking and chewing gum simultaneously, which is my roundabout explanation for why I haven’t posted any writing here on this international website of text for months and months. I didn’t intend to stop posting (at too long a length, somewhat monthly); it’s just that I’ve been over here chewing on some Wrigley with great intensity.*

I realize no one cares about this. At all. That was one of the painful yet freeing discoveries recently, made in private, worth nothing to no one. No one cares if you don’t update your blog. Consequently, no one cares if you start updating your blog again. You don’t even need a reason!

So here I am, again.

*And by chewing Wrigley I of course mean working on a novel.

Beefier hands and more of them

All of the Moore–Updike ping pong from last week has me thinking of Moore’s descriptive powers. Updike is rightly praised for his indefatigable eye. Moore is praised for her “zingers,” her jokes, her unseen sideswipes into the absurd. And yes, she does have those (and great paragraphs, too!), but she also has great descriptive powers. Her descriptions are not of the pointillist nature of Updike’s, but they are metaphorically richer. Here is an example from A Gate at the Stairs:

I began working in my father’s baby greens field that very week. My job was to run in front of the shaver, a special attachment on the thresher, which he had contrived himself and which he was amused by and drove proudly like a car, though our field was so small that it was hard for him to make the turn-arounds. I ran ahead of it with fake feather and plastic hawk-wing extensions on my arms, whacking at the greens to scare the mice so they would not get into the mix. (If we had to take the greens to the triple-wash facility, it ate into the profit.) My father had actually designed my outfit for this, partially from a kite we had once brought to the Dellacrosse Kites on Ice festival. The costume had an aquiline-beaked mask and long wings I slipped my arms through, dipping them as I ran, brushing near the ground, beating the leaves, to resemble an actual predator and to encourage rodents to run from the shaver: nobody wanted sliced mice in their salads. At least not this decade.

[. . .]

Sometimes in the afternoon, upstairs in my room and still with my hawk outfit on, I would get out Ole Upright Bob, the double bass, dust him off, his bow quiver clipped at the tail beneath the bridge, like a scrotum, and we would rustle up a tune. There was a kind of buoyancy in making these four low strings sing something that was not a dirge. It was a demanding instrument, the stand-up bass — by comparison, my guitar, with its buttery, mushy fingerings, was a toy — and sometimes I just played it with open strings, Miles’s “Nardis,” which was basic, and which spelled starry backwards in Latin, or something, and which I loved, and which didn’t take a lot out of me. I had once, in the state music tryouts, played a solo from a double bass concerto by Sergei Koussevitzky, who in 1930 had been on the cover of Time magazine. That’s about all I knew about him. But either I wasn’t that good or the sight of a girl standing beside this huge wooden creature, grabbing its neck and stroking its gut, pulling the music out of the strings by force, made them ill at ease, and I was not selected. The faces of the panel listening were the very embodiment of skepticism made flesh, as if they were all saying Get a load of this!, and I had never experienced the weaponry of such expressions before. Subsequently, I drifted away from classical entirely, needing to leave behind the memory of that event. It was an aspect of childhood adults forgot to think about when they encouraged their children to try new things.

My mother came to the doorway once, seeing me winged and wrapped around my bass, one hand moving squidlike down the neck of him, the other bouncing the bow in a kind of staccato, and she said, “No wonder I couldn’t sleep. Look at you. What a sight.” There I was, I supposed, a bass-faced bird, embracing the sloped shoulders of another bird whose long-necked wooden crested head, like a knight in chess, hovered over my head as if it were a fellow creature advising me what to do. Still, she smiled. I was playing “Bye Bye Blackbird.” She thought that it was my own arrangement, but it was one I had copied, or tried to copy — if only I’d had beefier hands and more of them — from Christian McBride.

“Your grandmother used to sing that song!” she exclaimed, and then went back to her room to rest.

I’m sure that with a little digging, I could come up with an equally metaphorically interesting string of paragraphs in Updike’s work; it’s not so much that as how Moore gently ladles her absurdities so that they somehow reharmonize into touching evocations of character. I’m mixing my metaphors terribly; my thoughts are all aflux. Moore is able, in her best moments, to be both absurd and terribly sympathetic.

Perhaps another way to cast this would be to think of Updike as a musical virtuoso, and like a virtuoso, he is sometimes unbearable; he never relents from being a virtuoso, in reminding you of his talents, whereas Moore is the type of singer (go with me) who is someone you actually want to listen to.

Yet another way of saying this is that I have often thought — and this is a point that James Wood has made in a much more substantive way — that part of Updike’s “problem” was his eloquence. He could never not be eloquent, and his irrepressible verbal felicity was a handicap, especially in some (some!) of his fiction. You, as a reader, were never allowed to forget that you were being dazzled by Updike’s brilliant prose. Of course, whether or not this is “good” or “bad” for fiction depends on the kinds of effects one is after, whether you want the reader to forget the author for a while, etc. But, to continue a mental comparison with Nabokov that I’ve got continually running in my head, Nabokov encountered this same problem, and he seemed to tame it somewhat by always conspicuously positioning his narrators or framing them in some way so that their eloquence was a feature of the narrative itself, rather than just there in the air like water vapor.

To put it even another way (aphoristically, reductively), to become a virtuoso is to deny taste.

Review of Adam Begley’s ‘Updike’

I’m happy to announce that I have a review of Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike in the new issue of Open Letters Monthly. The Begley bio recently came out in paperback. My take on the book was . . . oh, I don’t know. It’s complicated. I can’t come up with a pithy re-cap. Just go read the review.

Anyway, as with all reviews, there were scraps of thoughts I couldn’t include. Here are some of them:

Updike as great compartmentalizer
It’s difficult to read a biography of a writer and not come at it with a self-help kit. There is always the banal but necessary question of how did he get the work done? Aside from the talent, from the special blend of circumstance, and the capacity for endless hard work, was there some special “trick” that this writer used?

I feel like this whole line of inquiry is shameful, like I should know better than to read a biography in this vampiric way, but I can’t seem to help it.

Anyway, Updike’s trick, if it can even be called that, was that he had a talent for compartmentalizing his life from his work — this in addition to all of the other myriad talents he possessed. He seemingly could work anywhere, under any circumstance, with no sense of procrastination or doubt.

While writing the review, I was tipped off about this video of Philip Roth, who briefly muses on Updike’s greatness. He says Updike “could find the sentences for anything.” And he’s right, I think. The one thing that’s missing in Updike is any real sense of doubt, or fear, or insecurity, or exhaustion, or mute perplexity, or cosmic paralysis that he was wasting his life amidst a pile of empty signification, that maybe he should have taken up something — anything — else, or any of the other routine gales of doubt that the contemporary writer is heir to. (Not me, not me, naturally.) Whatever doubt he felt, he filed it away and got to work, and this lifelong ruthlessness seems extraordinary.

Lorrie Moore as the anti-John Updike
Or the sequel to John Updike, or the contra-Updike, or Updike from the other side of the marital bed. In the review I muse about the possibility of a biography of Mary Updike, the author’s first wife and seemingly the true hero of his writing career. But in the meantime, while that book (hopefully) gets written, we will have to make do with the stories of Lorrie Moore, who I was re-reading coincidentally while working on the review.

If Nicholson Baker, in his inimitable way, continued the diamond-cutting progress of Updike’s prose, Moore continued the subject of his stories — the ruination of the modern American marriage, especially when its victims are well-educated and employed, that is, on the surface, winners in the lottery of first-world experience. (Call it “The Postwar Ruins of Prosperity and The Pill.”) Except the difference is that Moore creates the opposite protagonists, stories told from the point of view of the wry female who’s been sentenced to the domestic hell of dealing with men who are emotional terrorists.

Moore also, interestingly, even daringly, has not written any autobiography. Though many of her stories smell faintly of veiled memoir, and though she has one brilliant, famous story about a baby diagnosed with cancer that mirrors her own son’s diagnosis with cancer, she has not rushed into the contemporary trend of memoir writing, confessional essay penning, or “autofiction,” to use a term I read about just yesterday. (Why, sweet lord of the library, we must come up with yet more idiotic nonce words to re-decorate the endeavor of literature I’ll never know.) After first reading her latest book of stories, Bark, I toyed with the idea of writing an essay about Moore called “The Lost Memoirs of Lorrie Moore,” because though she had been through various “life material” (to use a crude phrase) that seemed ideal for memoir (a pediatric cancer fight, a subsequent divorce, a long-in-the-making but ultimately great novel), she chose to keep writing fiction, albeit fiction that dealt with some of the biographical ingredients that were easily visible from her author interviews and other bits of promotional flotsam. That is, she kept at the old Updike strategy of re-translating her lived experience into fiction.

Obviously, I haven’t worked all of this thought-soup out yet, but the point I’m moonwalking toward is that through this commitment to fiction, and the short story in particular, Moore’s work provides a rebuttal to many of Updike’s stories, not in a point/counterpoint way, but in a way that let’s the Mary Updike–like figures have their say against the blind, reckless, and remorseless force of the male ego-libido.

Postscript: I can’t bring all of this up without linking to this fascinating review she wrote for the New York Review of Books a few years ago.

Note on Paragraphs

It was Virginia Woolf who said (I think) that instead of paying attention to a writer’s sentences (all those little marginal checkmarks of affirmation) we should pay attention to their chapters. I think this is a good idea but would offer one more metric of appreciation: the paragraph. I don’t think you should focus on one to the exclusion of the other lengths, but they are all different ways to appreciate what a writer is up to or the different speeds at which they excel.

Enter Lorrie Moore, whom I love essentially without reservation. Without going into a full defense or promotion of her work, I just want to note how wonderful she is at writing paragraphs. Normally she’s known for her sharp one-liners, slicing you unaware, and it’s true she’s got great lines and an amazing sense of rhythm. But it’s how these elements combine into whole paragraphs, where they all coalesce that I think is the mark of true excellence.

Here’s an examples from her story “Debarking”:

“You can’t imagine the daily dreariness of routine pediatrics,” said Zora, not touching her wine. “Ear infection, ear infection, ear infection. Whoa. Here’s an exciting one: juvenile onset diabetes. Day after day you just have to look into the parents’ eyes and repeat the same exciting thing: ‘There are a lot of viruses going around.’ I had thought about going into pediatric oncology, because when I asked other doctors why they’d gone into such a seemingly depressing thing, they said, ‘Because the kids don’t get depressed.’ That seemed interesting to me. And hopeful. But then when I asked doctors in the same field why they were retiring early, they said they were sick of seeing kids die. The kids don’t get depressed, they just die! These were my choices in med school. As an undergraduate I took a lot of art classes and did sculpture, which I still do a little, to keep those creative juices flowing! But what I would really like to do now is write children’s books. I look at some of those books out in the waiting room and I want to throw them in the fish tank. I think, I could do better than that. I started one about a hedgehog.”

This has all the characteristics of a classic Moore paragraph: the monologue that rapidly unspools a character, the desperate exclamation points, the swerving between emotional registers. Just look at how far the paragraph travels.

And here’s a bonus example, this one illustrating her impeccable sense of rhythm. It’s from the essay “Better and Sicker,” which appeared in Issue 4, Volume 2 of PEN America back in 2002.

I often think of an acquaintance of mine who is also a writer and whom I ran into once in a bookstore. We exchanged hellos, and when I asked her what she was working on these days, she said, “Well, I was working on a long comic novel, but then in the middle of the summer my husband had a terrible accident with an electric saw and lost three of his fingers. It left us so sad and shaken that when I returned to writing, my comic novel kept getting droopier, darker and sadder and depressing. So I scrapped it, and started writing a novel about a man who loses three fingers in an accident with a saw, and that,” she said, “that’s turning out to be really funny.”

Note on Streaming

So I was reading various think-pieces about the latest Apple press event when I ran across this article at The New Republic:

In these companies’ push to be the fabled Everything, interoperability is waning. Weeks after Facebook announced its acquisition of Instagram, Twitter cut off access to a feature allowing users to discover people on Instagram based on their Twitter “following” list. Months later, Instagram disabled Twitter Cards integration for Instagram content. Streaming music services, as is, are unfortunately siloed — one cannot, for instance, make a universal playlist that supports Rdio, Spotify, and Apple Music. It’s a situation without an analog equivalent: mixtapes work on any brand of cassette player.

But this “situation without an analog equivalent” is not in fact true. Greg Milner in his book Perfecting Sound Forever details the early years of the phonograph industry, which used to be “siloed” in just this way. Certain records would only play on their corresponding players. The technology progressed toward a world where playback devices played any kind of music.

(I don’t have the Milner in front of me; I lent it to a friend and without going over there midday and breaking and entering, I can’t give you an exact quotation. But I can feel it, man, that Milner details this somewhere in the first couple of chapters.)

So you can see today’s deliberate in-operability of current music streaming services as either a return to recorded music’s primordial warfare of formats or as another unfortunate but seemingly necessary evolutionary step of technological change, but you can’t say that it’s unprecedented. Instead, you could say that ever since music became a recorded artifact, we’ve wrestled with the format that record takes and how it gets controlled. The only escape from the headache of format would be a pure and total return to live music.

Note on Bridges

A new short story of mine, “Under the De Soto,” went up over the weekend at Fried Chicken and Coffee, the “blogazine of Appalachian literature” edited by Rusty Barnes. Go check it out!

I’m happy to have the story out in the world because for one, it’s been a while since I’ve published a new short story. The problem with working on a long thing is that you forfeit the little motivational piston-firings that come with finishing and then hopefully one day publishing smaller things. Working on longer things requires delayed gratification in a multitude of ways.

Second, this is my second story to be published at Fried Chicken and Coffee. (My short story “High Cotton” was published there a few years ago.) I frankly love appearing in the same journal more than once, whether it’s online or on paper. I relish and aspire to be a “regular contributor,” something different from a staff writer but yet more meaningful than merely a one-time guest. Your aesthetic and the aesthetic of the publication shake hands every now and then, and it’s a good feeling.

The De Soto of the title refers to the Hernando De Soto bridge, which connects downtown Memphis to the eastern border of Arkansas. It’s one of Memphis’ two expansive, industrial-strength bridges. It’s also illuminated at night in the shape of a sine-wave–like M, which nicely mimics the bends of the Mississippi River below. When I lived in Memphis, I got to see this bridge every day, and, of all the details of Memphis life that I miss, those two — the constant gravitational force of the river and the man-made defiance above it — are missed the most. It feels odd to have wistful notions toward architecture, but what can you do.

My review of ‘The Sellout’

Just a quick note to say that my review of Paul Beatty’s newest novel The Sellout is up over at Open Letters Monthly. Did I like it?

Let’s just say it gets a whole garden full of those little blue-cuffed Facebook thumbs . . .

I’ve got a pet theory (thankfully deleted from the review) about stand-up comedians . . .

Here’s my theory: the most ambitious stand-up comedians evolve into novelists.

Or they seem to want to turn into a type of novelist, by which I mean they begin to get less funny — intentionally — as a way to knit together their comedic observations into some kind of larger aesthetic/point. The only examples I have are male: Pryor, George Carlin, Louis CK. This also seems particularly a late-period comedian development; it’s something that they mature toward.

Carlin might be the most perfect example of this pet theory: in his late shows he seems less a comedian than a civilization’s grumpy uncle, the neighborhood crank, dressed all in back, pinning us to our seats for 90 minutes with his dystopic theories. The results were not consistently funny, nor were they consistently enjoyable, and both of those reactions seemed to be intentional.