Posts from the ‘books’ Category

nature, nurture, and Louise Lateau’s bloody ecstacy

Maud Casey

Genealogy presents as a spider web of chemical instability and family life, through which we pick our way to monster in the center: who or what, if anything, has caused the daughter’s descent into mental illness?

The parents of the Hennart family are over-intellectual narcissists or, more charitably, adult orphans who understand the family lives they have rejected far better than the one they want, or the one they have.  Bernard, a recently fired professor much older than his wife, envies the religious ecstasy of long-dead mystics.  He rejects, even ridicules his wife’s rediscovered Benedictine spirituality as a lingering superstition of her tragic childhood, but naively loses himself in accounts of a 19th-century teenage stigmatic.  Samantha, who unknowingly carries a potential aneurysm in her brain, seems to be 18 years into untreated post-partum depression as well as two decades of writer’s block.  Unlike her husband’s yearning for “something beyond,” she both fears and craves relationships that are concretely mundane.  They both retreat into separate studios to “work,” producing nothing, seduced away from action by soft research and contemplation.

Outside these rooms, they don’t interact so much as ritualistically converse, interrupting to disparage each other’s verbal tics, and repeat processed family stories.  They believe, but don’t realise that they believe, that their small family’s world can be controlled by repeated rational definitions.

Jammed into the spare corners of this intellectually crowded house are two adult, or nearly adult, children.  As the novel begins, Ryan is gone, part banished and part fled.  He struggles with a psychological marijuana addiction—somewhat like his father, wanting to feel something different from his own life and thoughts—and a nervy general malaise, the victim of his parents’ self-centred definitions as both their son (and likeness) and his sister’s emotional father.

His sister, Marguerite, is what traps him, him and his mother, by their own need to live up to a vague maternal standard.  Once ejected from the house, the brother is eager to have a life away from both his parents, whom he sometimes loathes, and his sister, whose clingy love demands total absorption.  Samantha has never connected with her as a mother, and now attempts to do so by turning Marguerite into the subject of a research project.  Marguerite’s father attempts to connect as well, with a younger image of his now 18-year-old daughter who used to love stories, but emotionally poisons her with stories of his stigmatic obsession.  Alone with her parents, and the horny Benedictine builder brought in to upgrade the bathroom into a turn of the (19th) century therapy zone, Marguerite rapidly begins to resemble one of Harry Harlow’s monkeys.

Shifting from present to stories within stories, the first half of the novel establishes a household that resembles an emotional foot-binding, a sustained attempt to create and maintain a family narrative that allows for no growth.  The novel begins at the moment of disintegration, of the family and the individuals inside, which unexpectedly leaves the interloping builder at the centre.  The second half seems to have been written at a later time, as it leaves the interlocking circles of perspective behind and races deeper into anxiety—will these people reconnect in time to salvage anything of the family relationships, rescuing Marguerite and themselves?

Endings are always difficult in backstory-heavy sagas.  Here, it is satisfying in one sense—the family members feeling that they’ve individually touched something greater than themselves and making new lives out of the stifling past—but one of the lynchpins of the change and the one who grounds and advises them is a character named Hyuen, who is never fleshed out.  Why he would tie himself to a difficult person and family is unknown, leaving him uncomfortably close to the magical ethnic figure—unless the cynic who would assume he needs to be surrounded by dysfunctional people needing his guidance is correct, and he is meant to be a final example of unhealthy mental spaces. 

With the family members, however, the right questions are answered and the bittersweet ones left a mystery.   They go on, satisfied, more or less, with “small comforts that are no small comfort.”

he did and he didn’t

I, Fatty
Jerry Stahl
Found: Soho Original Books


Is there anything more popcorn-ready than old Hollywood gossip? All those geriatrics, well back in the fog of boredom and conformity that ruled before those Boomers changed society with their long hair and their Beatles albums, getting Lifetime Achievement Awards months before dying in unfashionable Hollywood neighborhoods…the sanitary images giving way to the bold whispers that Hearst shot Ince, thinking his was murdering Chaplin for sleeping with his teenage mistress. Drugs, promiscuity, and hard-hearted scheming, all even before cracking open the encyclopaedia of paranoid malevolence written on Howard Hughes.

Perhaps even better are the speculations you can draw from the period details; perhaps your great-grandmother soothed your infant grandfather with Bayer’s heroin but was wary of their strange new pill, aspirin?

Out of this hidden morass Jerry Stahl, himself a late-era Hollywood horror show, pulls the fictional biography of Roscoe Arbuckle, the sacrificial victim that conjured up the modern tabloid cycle. Better known as “Fatty,” Arbuckle was the highest-paid actor of his time, the first to make a million dollars per year, but today is mostly remembered for the three trials he underwent for the alleged murder of a starlet named Virginia Rappe. Although cleared of all charges, he never quite escaped the moral indignation, or the American public’s appetite for it, whipped up by Hearst’s papers against Arbuckle and Hollywood itself.

In the introduction, Stahl calls Arbuckle “the OJ of his day…aside from niggling matters of race, guilt, and innocence,” and, one could argue, talent, but also argues that the public condemnation was a logical and not entirely unexpected shift for “Fatty.” Mack Sennett anachronistically cribs from Mel Brooks: What I think, comedy is you fall in a ditch and die. Tragedy is I get a hangnail…people just naturally love watching bad go to worse.

Stahl makes an effort to distinguish his tone as presenter in the introduction from Roscoe-the-narrator. His fictionalised self speaks in something approaching early Chuck Palaniuk, but Roscoe’s tone too often drifts. Roscoe is recording this, we are told, near the end of his life while desperately in need of a fix, which his manservant refuses to provide until he’s worked through another chapter of his past. Given this state, he’s quite patient in describing his earlier years, unexpectedly in the moments he describes as a young child rejected by his father for “breaking Mama’s little flower.”

He seems to be talking from a stage to a larger audience, speaking dismissively of his servant, in the third person, rather than “you.” The one who controls the heroin Roscoe desperately needs isn’t flattered, isn’t coaxed. This man with a second-grade education peppers his narrative with Freudian observations and complex sentence structures that sit uneasily next to his childish worldview.

This opens up a distance between the narrative and the reader’s expectation that allows in the wrong kind of doubt. I should be looking for the clues of the unreliable narrator, the gaps in the verbal wallpaper that let through the truth he won’t admit; instead, I see places where the author isn’t in control of the flow. This leaves Fatty’s story feeling like a penultimate draft rather than the final novel, a work that needs one more rewrite to strip out egotistical turns of phrase that fit the writer rather than the character and adjust the flow to fit the frame.

Still, it’s impossible not to be drawn into the main subject, who may have been a poor conflicted sap set up by his studio owners and used to assure a titillated public that Hollywood was cleaning house of all immoral dangers.

Roscoe himself is so emotively fleshed in that even the flawed voice can’t prevent an instant bonding with the character. Stahl effectively uses a classic screenwriters crutch—the Freudian biopic backdrop—with a bit of a twist: his difficult, unassisted birth physically traumatises his mother, who “stopped being a wife” to his father. He had partially fulfilled the Oedipal complex before emerging completely into the world, and his father despised him and his girth, believing he took her from him sexually. His size, his fat, his identity as “Fatty” were the focal point of his father’s abuse, and later, that of his audience’s adoration—and still later, again, that audience’s abhorrence.

Unique among the fat-narrator genus of novels, Roscoe never loses or considers losing weight. As much as he may be feel unhappy or limited, his fat is him, not a separate element that could be shed. He often thinks of keeping up his weight as he polishes off extra food, his third milkshake. The weight is his paycheck, and his identity.

As an aside, how fat is fat, this elephantine beast? Five foot seven and 260 pounds at the height of his fame—today, the size of the charming IT guy, the one who gets a lot of interest in his profile.

Nevertheless, at the turn of the last century, that was tall and that was wide. Many were fascinated by his round childish body and wholesome face, the eternal energetic child. However, it seems that as “obesity serves as a cue for pathogen infection,” along with the more popular “people are borderline sociopathic jerks in general” theory, his audience was also primed to reject him as a morally depraved glutton. And much like the later—if less legally fraught—scandal surrounding Paul Reubens, it provoked extreme reactions on the part of the audience and studios, which agreed to pull all of Arbuckle’s movies from theatres and prevent him from working even after his aquittal. The childlike image (that one could fairly expect an audience of adults to conceptualise as an act) juxtaposed with the realisation of the adult person made Fatty and Pee-Wee horrifying, monsters capable of any imagined horror. It’s possible to continue the Freudian metaphor that, having identifying a performer as a child, their growth into sexual maturity provokes a different Oedipal fear, of being the parent who is deposed or erotically taken.

More simply, however, Stahl and his version of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle take us to the place where we struggle to remember what we believe of ourselves against the dark carnival of scandal, but grotesque gossip is what becomes history. Stahl has continued to muddy the Arbuckle/Rappe waters with his potluck of fiction and history, but in doing so may be a gifting the entire cast with one humane remembrance among thousands of pantomime villains and damsels.


jaws and smokey fistfight in heaven

Bear V Shark
Chris Bachelder

Found: Original Soho Bookstore


Best read twice, BvS is a pre-9/11 book unfortunate enough to be released in October 2001. Drawing heavily, and (of course) post-modernly self-consciously, on Neil Postman, Henry David Thoreau, Guy Debord, and even a little Lacanian-influence Zizek, this novel twists from comic to tragic while maintaining its ironic timbre—a neat trick, that.

The second reading—and this is a quick read, despite some depth, making a second trip through no onerous task—retains the comedy of disconnected suburban people seemingly composed of nonsequitor soundbites, but the impending tragedy, and the anger, isn’t a distant spectre but the invisible engine of this world.

Bachelder asks us to imagine this novel, “based on a true story”:

…not unstable in its own right but perched upon, based on, the cautious steady slope of the shingled roof of Truth and teetering, teetering, the whole damn situation fixing to collapse into tainted wreckage, in which wreckage lie nearly equal parts Truth and Lie, irony and That Which Is Not Irony, such that context and purity are forever lost, and the pieces are indistinguishable.

This couldn’t have been written in 2002 with any comfort, and in 2007 is written not with comparatively safer angst on the nature of fiction but with anxiety over the major US news outlets. Likewise, the BvS victims of crime and terror, unseen to those attending to their entertainment-saturated frontal lobes, can no longer be conceived of when victims of terrorist actions (in the US, at least) are immediately made faceless political celebrities. They are part of the Why We Fight narrative, often championed by the same people who refuse others the right to contextualise their lives and deaths. They may be metaphorically raised high, trampled, and buried, but they are not ignored.

I ask myself now, why I am nattering on about the nightmare that is current Western/Middle Eastern politics? Do I love the sound of my keys clicking so much I pontificate through a book review?

Yeeeeeeah. I do. Best get used to that.

But I justify: BvS is fiction that inhabits the place where entertainment supplants living, where infotainment displaces journalism, where half-remembered juxtapositions smother education. BvS warned us of the dangers of itself, of clever bits of amusement we become accustomed to contextualising the moments of our lives for us. On the bus yesterday, watching a young, over-accessorised mother push her SUV of a stroller into traffic without a glace, punching buttons on her cell phone, and saw the scrunched face of her toddler inches from the bus’s wheels, I thought of the worried baby sitting next to the cash register in a roadside diner, unclaimed.

Not JesusChristWomanBabyNotTougherThanCars!!!

We’re now just as distracted by fictions and repackaging our lives into something suitable to multimedia blog entries. (This being the royal ‘we,’ of course…most of the world and the majority of living generations have no interest or access to this level of exhibitionist navel-gazing.) The important shift in the last seven years has been the conscious and sinister use of focus-group researched gut-level infotainment prevarication to shape national debate. Allowing myself to be more or less permanently distracted is to be part of the obfuscation. Dammit.


(q) aren’t satirists just sentimental and oversensitive cranks who just wish the world were a kinder place and furthermore sort of believe that it could be a kinder place and it is therefore tragic that it’s such a cruel and stupid place?


It’s entertaining, but not distracting. And there are flaws, connections that aren’t quite made—are the men who approach Mr Norman with cryptic comments the same as the Zizekian jouissance–loving terrorist group, the same as the luddites outside Vegas, the same as the folksingers and protesters?

I’m left wondering: is there reasonable hope this world will become a slightly less cruel and stupid place after viewers turn away from BvS, or will they demand less violence, less sex as well, less thought and investment in more shallow entertainments?

I can’t wait to read more from this guy.

Also, assuming equivalent sizes? The Shark’s got one weapon, teeth, in a relatively small and immobile mouth, which would be hindered by the bear’s shaggy coat and thick layer of fat. The Bear has five potential offensive points, can swim with some dexterity, and may mistake the shark for a large salmon. Advantage: bear, all the way.

fifty years of Jack Kerouac (the personality)

Why was I surprised to read that On the Road was published fifty years ago? Even when it was published in 1957 it was nearly a decade behind itself, past that pale echo of the Roaring Twenties between WW2 and Korea. The characters—while I’ll usually insist on the opposite, here much of the strength of the often beautiful prose comes from the scattered arc-resisting sense that these are memories of real people—were young and burn burn burning in the late forties, and were pushing forty themselves when new Beat fame required they perform this youthful madness again for the tv cameras.

Do it, do what you wrote about, show me how to do it…

The novel is about chasing, almost catching, overtaking, and realizing you had it only when you were looking elsewhere. “It,” whatever “it” is exactly: moments, in memory stretched to encompass days or years. Every component of that moment is yours, your personal madness or sweetness without referents, without an exact model to match or miss.

Or at least it looks like that in hindsight, when these moments are the models of some true self you match or, increasingly, miss.

On the Road was fifty or a hundred years old when it was written, in that sense. It looks back, recounting brief months that can’t be recaptured, describing friendships with their dismal anticlimactic closes in mind, presenting the narrative “I” with retrospection’s peculiar mix of perception and ego-omissions.

Every one of these things I said was a knife at myself. Everything I had ever secretly held against my brother was coming out: how ugly I was and what filth I was discovering in the depths of my own impure psychologies.

He appeared on talk shows, reading nervously while Steve Allen dribbled on piano, and the public eye saw the ur-Beat, part Neal Cassady, part black-beret’d Hugh Hefner, social and smooth and confident. The advocate of “nowness,” out of his nostalgic work of past nowness, nowness-that-was. Nobody wanting to believe he was only Sal, the shambling follower, one city behind the curve.

 Somewhere between the man, the book, and the archetype is this essence, the feeling that generations of wishful thinkers would preserve like a pinned butterfly. It feels like the easiest fifty years to surmount, beating on, boats against the current…