Biography

"Do we really want writers to be okay? Just okay?" That intriguing response is one of many I elicited from J. C. Hallman, author of B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, a bright, funny and expansive account of a rewarding and investigative personal journey through another living writer's unusual career.

This other writer is Nicholson Baker, whose dynamic and wide-ranging intelligence would intimidate many young critics with less gusto than J. C. Hallman. Baker's literary chops are immense and his philosophical and social convictions deeply inspiring, though his intellectual experiments sometimes leave even his most enthusiastic readers cold. Here is my conversation with J. C. Hallman about an author we both admire very much.

LEVI: So, in 1991 the up-and-coming author Nicholson Baker wrote a book called U and I in which he dared to place himself on nearly equal terms with the literary lion John Updike. I say "nearly equal terms" because the book avoided a conventional critical tone of piety and humility towards Updike, and instead brashly showcased the freewheeling talents and original visions of its author.

Now in 2015, you have written a book called B & Me in which you dare to place yourself on nearly equal terms with Nicholson Baker ... who is by now a literary lion in his own rights.

I'm happy to tell you that I think you pulled it off with great style. But I'm wondering if you felt intimidated by the audacity of your act in dreaming up "B & Me". Was it difficult to conjure up enough confidence in yourself as a writer to take on Nicholson Baker in the same format that Nicholson Baker once used to take on John Updike? Or rather was the audacity of this challenge one of the attractions of the project for you?

J. C.: As Baker suggests in U and I, writers should strive to avoid finding a groove and coasting for their entire careers, and I think I would actually find it hard to muster the energy a book-length project requires if didn’t appear daunting at first, if it didn’t challenge me, or even threaten me, in some way.

Which isn't to say that mustering the energy for a book is easy. Once I sold the proposal for B & Me –- a story in and of itself –- I went through about a month-long period of complete paralysis. I was terrified that all I’d done was invent a way to fail. That feeling started to go away only when I really got into the reading of Baker’s books and realized that my instincts about the project had been correct. From that point on, the book wasn’t easy to write, by any means, but it felt like an inspired project, and the process of emulating Baker emulating Updike forced me to find new reserves in myself.

LEVI: Nicholson Baker often appeared to be channelling the literary voice of John Updike in U and I, and I sensed you channelling the voice of Nicholson Baker often in B & Me. For instance, this sentence, which appears towards the end:

Our tactile experience of a book is that each of its "pages" has a front and a back, and these fronts and backs, somewhat confusingly, are also called "pages".

I'd recognize that as a Bakeresque sentence if I saw it all by itself on a subway at midnight. It delivers an original realization of a commonplace absurdity -- the fact that a "page" is at once a single thing and a doubling of the single thing, which certainly ought to be illegal as far as precise language goes -- and yet it accepts this absurdity with a sense of wonder and openness rather than complaint. If that's not Bakeresque, I don't know what is. Did you find yourself intentionally writing and/or thinking like Nicholson Baker as you wrote this book? Is it something you tried to do intentionally, or something you tried not to do but did anyway?

J. C.: Yes, but not in a strictly imitative sense. Geoff Dyer's great book Out of Sheer Rage does this same sort of thing with the fretful voice of D.H. Lawrence, as Dyer hears him in his correspondence, and for me that's a variation on something James Agee says about writers using words to embody subjects. Embodiment is the purest form of understanding or communion, and I’ve always tried to become that which I hoped to be able to describe. I was very conscious of moments in the book when I was indulging in Baker-style thinking, but I was aware too when I was departing from what he would say, or how he would say it.

Of the former, there was once, in the book, a longish passage about what it feels like to finger-pry a book down from a tightly packed bookshelf, the almost hydraulic feel of the book covers sliding against one another. That description wound up getting cut -- only the term "finger-pried" remains –- and maybe, in the end, it was a moment that I felt was too Bakerian, or needlessly so.

LEVI: Nicholson Baker has made his wife Margaret Brentano a constant presence in his books, where she often plays a comforting role. (Like you, I was worried about Baker's own mental stability when Paul Chowder revealed that his beloved Roz had left him in The Anthologist, and was slightly relieved when he and Roz seemed to try to get back together in "Traveling Sprinkler", even though I don't think Paul and Roz's chances for happiness together looked great at the end of that book.)

Similarly, you've put your partner Catherine near the core of this book, and even gave her the honor of echoing some of the scenes of scatological awkwardness that were so memorable in Baker's "Room Temperature". Since you and I are Facebook friends (though we've never met in real life), I hope you aren't shocked to learn that I peeked at your pages to see if there was a real-life Catherine. There is, and she's quite charming and fascinating. So I'm curious -- how did she react to being featured so prominently in your book?

J. C.: The book is dedicated to Catherine, but never was a dedication so much of an understatement. Catherine was there from the very beginning, buying me Baker books when I had only hinted that I might want to read him. She realized before I did that what I really needed to do was read someone long and deep. That’s what she’d been doing her whole life, actually – and that's what she does now as a professional editor. So Catherine is present in the book in the form that Proust says is the real reason we read: as an "incitement." In short, the book is not merely indebted to Catherine: she made it possible, and then she made it better when she read it and edited it.

Lastly, I disagree that Paul and Roz of Traveling Sprinkler are not destined for happiness. It’s love! Love!

LEVI: Let's talk about Traveling Sprinkler, then. This is Baker's newest book, and I have to mention that I really hated Traveling Sprinkler. I hate nearly half of Nicholson Baker's books -- the reason I am a big Nicholson Baker fan is that I really, really love the ones I don't hate. But, yeah, I hated Traveling Sprinkler.

I think I have more trouble with Baker's really extreme sexual exhibitionism than you do. As I'm reading Traveling Sprinkler I'm thinking: wait a minute, just because I love The Mezzanine and Human Smoke I have to suffer through this? Reading the book did make me feel like I was being sprinkled upon, if you know what I mean ... and I don't believe for a minute the narrator's suggestion that the title evokes a piece of gardening machinery.

But now this presents a very interesting "rhyme" with B & Me -- a section in which you come to the realization that Nicholson Baker's relationship with his authors is, shall we say, "ejaculative" ... and you seem to consider this a positive aspect of his work. So, did you write that section of the book before or after "Traveling Sprinkler" was published, and did you also notice the rhyme?

J. C.: The quick answer to the last part of your question is that Traveling Sprinkler wasn't released until I was mostly done with B & Me, but yes, I did notice the rhyme.

Traveling Sprinkler offered support to many things I’d gone out on a limb to suggest in B & Me, so for me it was a very validating book, almost like a list of all the things I'd gotten right about Baker's career and thought. And I think that maybe returns to the first part of your question, because even when I read The Fermata and found it to be a lesser book than some of his others, I recognized that it contained ideas that were essential to understanding those "better" books. I suppose what I came around to was the idea that you can read the books of certain authors (and maybe Baker is a perfect example of this) like individual chapters of the vast novel of their career. You don’t hate Infinite Jest or The Grapes of Wrath because they've got a clunker chapter or two. And perhaps what I was trying to suggest in B & Me is that we should be thinking of reacting to writers' careers as a whole, rather than judging individual books inside of it.

That said, who hasn’t had the exact experience of a writer that you describe? We love some books, hate others. It’s probably safe to say that most human intimate relationships, with lovers, with our families, exhibit a similarly wide ranges of emotions, from love to hate. Why should a relationship with a writer be any different?

LEVI: I have one pet theory involving Traveling Sprinkler -- yes, even when I hate a Nicholson Baker book, I will take the time to analyze it -- which is that the character of Roz is named after Rocinante in Don Quixote, and that Paul Chowder sees himself as Don Quixote. (The fact that he names his erstwhile love interest after Rocinante instead of Dulcinea is certainly some type of wry irony.)

I'll probably never find out if this theory is true or not ... and actually I'm much more impressed by your theory that Nicholson Baker titled U and I after Martin Buber's I and Thou. That's a very intriguing theory -- but then Nicholson Baker himself shoots it down. Or does he? When he told you that U and I was not in fact titled after I and Thou, did you feel certain that he was telling the truth?

I'd also like to hear more about the Martin Buber connection -- whether it's true or not that this was intended by Baker, what do you think it signifies?

J. C.: Rocinante to Roz is a bit of a stretch, isn't it? He could have gone with Rocky, sometimes a woman's name. I feel compelled to point out, too, that Arno's girlfriend in The Fermata is Rhody. I think it speaks very highly of Baker’s work that he inspires – or arouses – this kind of frantic digging for whatever lies beneath the surface.

Baker told me he hadn’t read Buber –- not that he hadn’t heard of him, or thought of him, when titling U and I. I didn't mention looking into this in B & Me, but it's been suggested (in the John Updike Encyclopedia) that Updike revealed sympathy for Buber's I/Thou formulation, and even thought of it as a version of the writer-reader relationship, in A Month of Sundays. And A Month of Sundays is one of the Updike books that Baker cites directly in U and I ...

What does this signify? Maybe simply that the way literature shapes us isn't always direct. I finally read U and I when I realized that it had found a way to influence and shape me, via a kind of remote influence, without my yet having read it. So when I read it, finally, it wasn't just a gathering of information –- it was an act of recognizing how I'd become who I've become. Seems like a pretty good reason to read books.

LEVI: I loved the section near the end of your book when you finally met Nicholson Baker, when you frankly evaluated the real-life apparition of Nicholson Baker as you experienced him yourself. You watched him awkwardly interact with a townie friend, a lady whose name he couldn't remember, and you wrote:

That's when my heart just about melted for Nicholson Baker.

This poignant scene really anchored the book for me, and made me realize how sad Nicholson Baker often seems. It reminds me of the moment during his rather subdued recent appearance on TV when Stephen Colbert asked him "are you okay?". Do you ever wonder if Nicholson Baker is okay?

And while we're on the topic, are you okay?

J. C.: Do we really want writers to be okay? Just okay? Like monks or mystics, we ask them to suffer a bit, and by suffering extract something –- some wisdom – from their experience and offer it up. This makes our own lives not more comfortable, really, but perhaps more understood. My heart broke for Baker because I was witnessing his suffering first hand –- the suffering that had resulted in the books I'd grown to love.

I felt an immense gratitude, and it was a weird gratitude because it would have been totally inappropriate for me to express it to him at that moment, in a live human context. Literature is, perhaps, human empathy outside the context of being able to, or even wanting to, ameliorate another person's condition. Writers suffer and offer us wisdom and understanding, and we offer them careful attention, but nothing more, in return. It's a gift.

That said, I’m fine!

LEVI: I'm actually not that familiar with Martin Buber's work either, though I've always known and loved the title I and Thou. (I can now console myself that I'm in good company with Nicholson Baker on the Martin Buber front, though apparently I need to catch up with you and John Updike).

But I am more familiar with the philosophy of William James, clearly also a favorite of yours, and I'm extremely intrigued by the Jamesian thread -- William, and also Henry -- that carries throughout B & Me. I'm particularly intrigued because William James, like Nicholson Baker, was an outspoken pacifist. What do you think William James means as a philosopher to Nicholson Baker, and what do you think the two have in common as philosophers?

J. C.: Baker's James influence goes all the way back to the earliest days of career. When James pops up in U and I, from 1991, it's in the form of a memory from 1981. Almost all the James references in Baker’s career come from a few pages of James's The Principles of Psychology, the chapter, unsurprisingly, about the stream of consciousness. So, early on, Baker’s interest in James seems related to his thinking on thought, and Baker’s own interest in cognitive analogies.

But James is a strange literary influence. Some writers, like David Foster Wallace and Robert Pirsig, seem more indebted to the James of The Varieties of Religious Experience, whereas writers like William Gass and Baker seem more indebted to The Principles of Psychology. That said, Baker inserted into his Paris Review interview a sly reference to one of James's most famous essays, "Is Life Worth Living?" So, to return to your last question a bit, it would seem that Baker recognizes himself to be one of James's "sick souls" -- those who cannot simply blink away the darker sides of life.

LEVI: Can you tell us about the other books you've written? In particular, what novelistic themes or approaches do you believe you have in common with Nicholson Baker?

J. C.: Well, I've not yet published a novel, though I do have a collection of short stories, The Hospital for Bad Poets. But even there, I felt anticipated by Baker. I have a couple of sexually explicit stories that feel informed by Baker even though I hadn't read his sex books when I wrote them. I have a story, too, that features a man and his young nephew playing a violent video game together –- written long before Baker wrote a New Yorker essay about playing violent video games with his son.

When Baker and I met, he told me that as a young man he had tried his hand at correspondence chess – and my first book was about the chess subculture (I interviewed a famous murderer, Claude Bloodgood, who was a correspondence chess champion.) When I say, in B & Me, that it started to seem as though I didn’t really have an imagination of my own, I really meant it!

LEVI: Here's a quote I like from B & Me:

Incidentally, [the New Yorker short story] "Snorkeling" has an enticing typo: an open parenthesis that never closes. Given the New Yorker's attention to detail and the fact that "Snorkeling" has never been reprinted, it's tempting to wonder whether it's actually not a typo, whether Baker is suggesting that we think of the rest of the story, the rest of his career, as contained within a parenthetical statement that will never end."

I think that explains why I like Nicholson Baker so much -- because I believe he really did plan that typo, and as you suggest he probably had to do a hell of a hustling job to get it past the New Yorker copy editors. Nicholson Baker might be the only writer who would work that hard to create a typo in the New Yorker. Did you place any similar devices or easter eggs or time-bombs in B & Me? You can at least toss your readers a hint.

J.C.: I don’t know that I'm willing to suggest that the typo in "Snorkeling" was intentional –- it was Baker's second or third published story, and wouldn't it have been hard for him to argue for something that experimental? Too much pride at The New Yorker for that –- though that pride is much deserved.

That said, the rest of your question intrigues me. In B & Me, I liken myself to the unnamed critic in Henry James's famous story, "The Figure in the Carpet", who fancies himself a sleuth on the trail of some heretofore unseen idea in the work of a famous writer. True, the writer tells him that there’s something there to be found –- a figure in the carpet of his career that no one else has ever seen. And I have to admit that there are a couple things in B & Me that stand out very loudly for me, systemic things that were very much part of why I wrote the book the way I did, but which early readers of the book haven't really remarked upon. A hint? A hint would ruin the hunt!

But it is worth noting that readers tend to be more willing to plumb the depths of fiction than nonfiction. That’s too bad, because even within the constraint of nonfiction, it's possible to be enticingly subtle, and to offer rewards to the careful, persistent reader.

0

"Do we really want writers to be okay? Just okay?" That intriguing response is one of many I elicited from J. C. Hallman, author of a new book about Nicholson Baker.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2015 10:59 am
JC Hallman's book "B & Me"
Story
Levi Asher

In about four months we're going to hear a few news blips about the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte's final defeat at Waterloo, which went down on June 18, 1815. It's a good guess that the tone of these news blips will be apathetic and comical, that few attempts will be made at serious understanding or insight.

The lack of public interest in Napoleon represents a great fall in reputation for the French leader who was for his entire adult life the most famous and important person in the world. His reputation was once so gigantic that he remained the most famous and important person in the world long after his death in 1821. His cult of personality outlived him, and "Napoleonic" wars and revolutions would roil Europe and the Americas for at least another 100 years.

Opinions about Napoleon during this long era of emerging nationalism and revolution verged towards extremes: his memory was worshipped in rock-star fashion by progressives and Romantics, and he was vilified as a near-Satanic destroyer of civilization by conservatives and traditionalists. Napoleon was most beloved among aspiring citizens of emerging nations who yearned for liberation from ancient regimes. He was most despised in the countries that were his military enemies, particularly England and Russia. Perhaps it's because his name provoked such an unbearable level of divisiveness that he was eventually passed into history not as an important figure at all, but as a buffoon, a cartoon, a subject of delusion, the punchline to a forgettable joke.

If I search back for my own early sense impressions of the name "Napoleon", I picture a cross-eyed guy in an insane asylum with a three-cornered hat, his hand tucked inside his shirt or strait jacket. This is not Napoleon himself, but rather somebody pretending to be him. The idea of a "Napoleon Delusion" has become such a popular meme that it merits a page on TV Tropes. An article at Straight Dope traces the idea that crazy people thought they were Napoleon to early mentions by William James and William De Morgan. It's worth asking: why would so many crazy people claim to be Napoleon Bonaparte? It seems to be a sign of his once-great renown, of the stunning power -- for good or evil -- his image once evoked.

To modern minds like mine, though, the image of a crazy person ranting as Napoleon has merged with the persona of the historical figure so completely that it becomes surprising to learn that Napoleon Bonaparte himself never went crazy at all -- -not even in his final years of lonely exile. He probably did rant from time to time, but no more than any other grand dictator ever did.

So why has Napoleon's name sunk so low that he is now only remembered as a joke? A world leader who was once widely hated and widely loved has been reduced to a silly cartoon, and today the silly cartoon is all we remember.

A "Napoleon" is also a dessert pastry, and "Waterloo" is a song by ABBA. This trivialization would certainly annoy the Emperor himself, and he would probably interpret the phenomenon as a sign that the anti-Napoleon propaganda of 19th Century England and Russia has dominated over the pro-Napoleon propaganda of France and its allies. Their propaganda was certainly immense in scale. For both England and Russia, Napoleon was the human incarnation of the bloody and anarchic French Revolution. The pitying and damning portrait of revolutionary Paris found in Charles Dickens's Tale of Two Cities shows the intensity of condemnation the mention of revolutionary France once evoked on the British isles.

Literature's cruelest blow to Napoleonic glory was Leo Tolstoy's masterpiece War and Peace, which captures the boastful Emperor at his peak of arrogance and folly. War and Peace was a great literary drubbing, but a sensitive reader should consider that the sublime mind of Leo Tolstoy did not choose easy targets. The fact that Tolstoy considered the grand image of Napoleon Bonaparte to be worth taking down in 1869, fifty years after Bonaparte's death, proves again how important the French Emperor's image remained, even in faraway Russia, throughout the turbulent century that followed his defeat.

The level of Napoleon's rock-star celebrity can blind us to the fact that it was not actually the individual human being but rather the political impulses this human being personified that were the main topic of discussion in 19th Century Europe. The fact that Napoleon may have been prideful or yearned for imperial glory shows a human failing, but one person's human flaws reveal far less about history than the phenomenon that so many millions of other people found this one person inspiring. To a stunning degree, they did.

As the incarnation of the French Revolution, as a personification of the ideals of Rousseau and Voltaire, the people of Europe sanctified Napoleon as the representative of modernism, progressivism, egalitarianism, universal suffrage, "people power". He was appreciated as a breath of fresh air on a stale continent: an anti-cleric, a philo-semite, a breaker of racial and religious and ethnic and economic boundaries.

Whether this persona accurately represented the faulty human being or not, it was the persona itself that stood as a symbolic model of pure concentrated change and made him a hero to generations of intellectuals and artists and scientists. He was the fount of heroism in the modern age, the engine of political dynamism in a world stuck in the past. Charles Dickens could not appreciate Napoleon, but Lord Byron was certainly following a Napoleonic calling when he joined a military mission to liberate Greece from the Ottoman Empire and died at Missolonghi in 1824, as close to a battlefield as he could get. And it's impossible to fully understand Nietzsche's notion of the "ubermensch" without considering that Napoleon had once been Europe's "ubermensch".

Though he damaged his reputation for radicalism once he declared himself an emperor and established his various relatives as hereditary rulers all over Europe, the ideologies perceived as Napoleonic formed a point of origination for various radical movements, most notably Karl Marx's Communism, which was understood in its own time to be built upon the structure of French revolutionary doctrine. Virtually every brand of nationalist or internationalist progressivism of the 19th century would evoke Napoleon's name one way or another, and many powerful leaders would go on to consciously emulate his pursuit of moral greatness through military conquest: Napoleon III in France, Bismarck in Prussia, Simon Bolivar in South America, Andrew Jackson and then Teddy Roosevelt in the USA. We many not naturally think of these distinct historical figures as consciously emulating Napoleon when we remember them today. But if we wish to understand these leaders in the contexts of their own times, we must recognize the shadows they stood in.

The era of glorious Napoleonic warfare began its ugly end in August 1914. The Great War began with Napoleonic fervor on all sides, but quickly descended into depressing and murderous stalemate. A sick new brand of militarism would dominate the 20th Century, with a new cast of characters whose cults of personality had sharper edges. Times had changed -- and yet even so, contemporary records indicate that when Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Winston Churchill, Charles DeGaulle, Douglas McArthur and George S. Patton looked in the mirror, they each saw Napoleon Bonaparte in the glass.

We often think of Communism and Fascism as opposites today, but Fascism emerged from the same Napoleonic fervor as Communism, now flavored with powerful appeals to racial separatism and ethnic hatred. It's no coincidence that both Communism and Fascism thrived in the German, Italian, Slavic and Russian lands that had hosted all of Napoleon's great battles.

It was only after the final tragedy of World War II ended that Europe's last Napoleons began to fade away. This was clearly good riddance all around, but it's a concerning fact that much of the intense intellectual ferment that the name of Napoleon once evoked has been lost to modern understanding, and replaced with cliches of broad comedy.

Our Napoleonic amnesia seems to represent some kind of short circuiting of our shared historical mind. We giggle with bored familiarity at the image of a person whose power of persuasion once shook the earth. It's a lazy way of avoiding the fact that we still don't understand how to process the legacy that impacted our world so much, and not so long ago.

Even in 2015, as ill-begotten notions of military nobility and glory continue to roil our world, the grand contradiction that ended at Waterloo 200 years ago seems still to hold us in its grip, though we still fail to understand it.

7

Napoleon is barely remembered today, except as a joke. But his influence over the disastrous wars and revolutionary movements of the 20th Century was immense.

view /ContradictionToCartoon
Monday, March 2, 2015 08:02 am
Two comedians dressed as Napoleon
Story
Levi Asher

Twenty-five centuries ago, a Hindu scholar named Panini produced an analysis of the Sanskrit language so remarkable that later language theorists such as Ferdinand de Saussure would eventually cite it as the foundation of linguistics itself. Panini shows up in Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty, a new book by novelist and computer programmer Vikram Chandra, who describes the ancient scholar's achievement thus:

His objects of study were both the spoken language of his time, and the language of the Vedas, already a thousand years before him. He systemized both of these variations by formulating 3,976 rules that -- over eight chapters -- allow the generation of Sanskrit words and sentences from roots, which are in turn derived from phonemes and morphemes ...

The rules are of four types: (1) rules that function as definitions; (2) metarules -- that is, rules that apply to other rules; (3) headings -- rules that form the bases for other rules; and (4) operational rules. Some rules are universal while others are context sensitive; the sequence of rule application is clearly defined. Some rules can override others. Rules can call other rules, recursively. The application of one rule to a linguistic form can cause the application of other rule, which may in turn trigger other rules, until no more rules are applicable. The operational rules "carry out four basic types of operations on strings: replacement, affixation, augmentation, and compounding."

This is interesting on its own, but a reader who shares Vikram Chandra's familiarity with technology will probably notice how much fun Vikram Chandra is having here with words that have become standard computer programming jargon: "rules" and "metarules", "override", "recursion", "trigger", "operations on strings". The problems that concerned Panini as he read the Rig Veda in 400 BCE are apparently the same problems that concern software developers around the world today.

Geek Sublime is subtitled "The Beauty of Code, The Code of Beauty". I suspect this catchy subtitle was suggested by the publisher's marketing department, because it promises a much simpler equation than this unique work actually delivers. There's nothing very original about finding beauty in computer programs, which have aspired to be "elegant" since the days of FORTRAN and COBOL. Geek Sublime does touch upon the familiar topic of beauty in its first chapter, "Hello World!", but only as the starting point for a series of independent explorations that refuse to combine and intersect in predictable ways. I expected Geek Sublime to be an extroverted book, an accessible work of non-fiction, but in fact I'm now sure that Vikram Chandra wrote it with a novelist's mind, and even with a novelist's refusal to tie up loose ends.

Geek Sublime turns out to be a work of imagination and suggestion, a core dump of various ideas that have obsessed its author as he writes fiction and codes algorithms on the same keyboard. This is not a book that can be described by a flowchart, but it delivers something more worthwhile than a pat message: an invitation into the author's own peculiar ideas about language and logic as they manifest themselves in our everyday lives.

The topics Chandra touches upon here include:

The Soul of the Indian Programmer: In the early 1950s, India's government had the bright idea to start setting up the IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) system and importing mainframe computers for its fledgling computer scientists to learn on. This program was, obviously, a gigantic success, even though the soul of the Indian programmer remains mysterious to others, techie and non-techie alike. As a member of this global community, Chandra explains its contradictions, such as an alleged attitude of humility that masks a competitive intensity strangely invisible to outsiders. As an American-born techie who has often had the pleasure of being outnumbered by Desis in cubicle farms, I particularly enjoyed Chandra's point of view about the meaning of technology in the life of a modern Indian immigrant to America. I also enjoyed learning a few new words -- like jugaad, a creative workaround designed to solve a tough problem -- that I've never actually heard in any office, since the Indian programmers I work with (unlike Vikram Chandra) communicate with me exclusively in English. The richness of this vocabulary makes me wish they wouldn't always do so.

Gender and Ethnicity in the Workplace. Vikram Chandra recognizes the character of Raj in the TV comedy "The Big Bang Theory" all too well: an Indian "brain", awkward and unconfident, lacking the bull-headed masculinity of another techie stereotype: the superhero invincible programmer who can handle the toughest languages and debug the worst disasters with ease. This leads Chandra into a topic he has less first-hand knowledge of: the difficulties female programmers face in the overwhelmingly male world of software development.

This is a very relevant topic today, but like the book's subtitle it may have been grafted onto this book in an appeal for sales-worthy relevance, as Vikram Chandra really doesn't have anything new to add to this much-discussed controversy, except to point out that Indian programmers also sometimes struggle to fit into raucous American workplaces. These sections of the book are less successful than others also because Chandra seems to lack firsthand observation: while this novelist certainly is a real computer programmer, he does not appear to have held a full-time job in a technology department for a long time, and does not have his own stories to tell.

The Search for Elemental Roots of Language: modern programming languages are designed to be expressive and readable, which means they are abstracted by several layers from the actual physical instructions that are executed by the computer processor itself. These physical instructions are called "machine code" and are written in machine language, which is expressed in hexadecimal expressions that correlate to a more readable format known as "assembly code" written in assembly language.

In describing the work of the ancient linguist Panini, Chandra points out the traditional belief that Sanskrit words have roots in primal sounds that actually express the true nature of the universe. This is a lovely belief (of course, for all we know it may be true), especially when considered alongside the primal electronic structures known as logic gates, the tiny physical circuits that actually run machine code instructions on the processor chips that live deep inside each computer.

Like Chandra, I am also a longtime admirer of logic gates, and I can sense the novelist's true techie nature as he obsesses over the psychological metaphors these circuits provide, and when he provides photos of actual logic gates built with Lego blocks, movable by gears and dials.

The search for a physical corollary to language may be closer to Geek Sublime's elusive core than anything else. The book is much more about rootedness than about beauty -- though I guess "The Rootedness of Code, the Code of Rootedness" would not have worked as a subtitle.

This section unintentionally reveals how rapidly the field of software technology is changing, because the examples Chandra uses in this section would have made more sense twenty years ago than they do today. (Like me, Chandra became a computer programmer in the 1980s, though unlike me he was able to make enough money writing to stop coding full-time.) In the chapter titled "The Language of Logic" Chandra implies that C# programs are compiled into machine language instructions that run directly on a processor's circuits. While this might be true if he were writing in C++, a language that has stubbornly resisted virtualization, Vikram Chandra is actually simplifying a much more complex story here, since modern computer languages like C#, Java and PHP tend to run in virtual environments that sever the programmer's direction connection with the computer's physical circuitry. If a computer is like a film projector, it's a simple fact that C# and Java and PHP programmers do not get to ever create the film that runs on the spool. In the age of cloud computing and virtual machines, we are much farther away from the physical chip than we were twenty years ago when Chandra was actively hacking for a living.

Dhvani and Rasa: along with new Sanskrit words for various flavors of technological frustration and revelation, I'm happy to learn from Geek Sublime a new vocabulary for artistic expression. Dhvani and rasa appear to represent the full appreciation of the meaning of a work in both an objective and subjective sense, and that's as much as I can confidently explain about these fascinating words, which I did not know before I read Geek Sublime. I may need to read the book a second time -- or follow up on some of the Sanskrit texts it beguilingly teases -- before I can try to explain these terms better. Till then, though, I'm happy to have them in my toolkit, where they may find some use.

Like the fascinating vocabulary it presents, Geek Sublime is certainly a work of depth and serious purpose. It's not the trendy nonfiction book it pretends to be, which is why I suspect it may actually be a novelist's latest novel in disguise. It works well enough that I'm looking forward to checking out the author's earlier ones.

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A novelist and computer programmer explores the intersection of the two worlds.

view /GeekSublime
Sunday, February 15, 2015 10:08 am
Geek Sublime by Vikram Chandra
Story
Levi Asher

As Mike Leigh's majestic new movie Mr. Turner begins, the famous British artist J. M. W. Turner's father buys pigments for his son in a dusty London shop. The vast psychedelic arrays of glass jars filled with powders of viridian, chrome, cobalt, barium and ultramarine seem as magical as Diagon Alley in Harry Potter or the Cheese Shop in Monty Python. The pure pleasure of this visual moment is a happy indication that Mike Leigh intends to luxuriate in the beauty of 19th Century England as joyously as he did in Topsy-Turvy, his previous biographical epic, and for Mike Leigh fans this is very good news.

It's a telling fact that as I settled in to watch a movie starring the great actor Timothy Spall as the influential British painter J. M. W. Turner, the artist I was mostly thinking about was Mike Leigh. He is one of my favorite living film directors, but he mostly turns out sensitive modest-budget films about regular people in contemporary settings (I wrote about one of these, Happy Go Lucky, last year). He is known for a low-key natural style, but when he delves into grand history (as he did in Topsy-Turvy, in which Gilbert and Sullivan debut The Mikado at the Savoy) he spares no expense on sets, costumes and period detail. I can think of no other historical film director who achieves such a convincing sensation of realism. When Mr. Turner strolls the riverfront at Margate, we can practically feel the refreshing spray on our cheeks.

But even when Mike Leigh delves into British history it's his emotional intensity that is really epic, and every Mike Leigh film will eventually (after much charming misdirection and improvisation) offer a clash and a resolution. Mr. Turner's affective axis turns on the gruff artist's impulsive and secretive love life. He cruelly manipulates and ignores several women, but eventually manages to find his home in a quiet arrangement with a sea salt's widow, played by Marion Bailey.

Like W. S. Gilbert in Topsy-Turvy, it's clear that the dyspeptic J. M. W. Turner craves the companionship of a loving woman, though he never manages to come to terms with the moral implications of a caring relationship. Turner the celebrity artist is far more confident with his adoring public than with any of the odd human beings he is forced to interact with, and it's impossible not to imagine that Mike Leigh must be painting a portrait of himself with this vision of a stumbling famous artist who lives for his visionary work, while somehow barely managing to survive his everyday life.

Mr. Turner features performances by several regulars in the Mike Leigh acting troupe, like Martin Savage, whose failed-artist character unfortunately doesn't have the dimensionality of his unforgettable George Grossmith in Topsy-Turvy, and Dorothy Atkinson, who played Jessie Bond in Topsy-Turvy and here nearly steals the show as a sickly and silent housekeeper who allows Turner to molest her whenever the impulse strikes. Timothy Spall is also a longtime member of the Mike Leigh troupe (though many film viewers will only recognize him as Peter Pettigrew in Harry Potter), and when he paints by violently stabbing his canvas with a thick brush in Mr. Turner he recalls the dumb London punk he played decades ago in Leigh's Life Is Sweet.

These fine actors appear here as tiny objects in a gigantic world: gorgeous skyscapes and mountain surfaces, railway apparitions, marine infinities. Mike Leigh the cinematic painter is certainly competing with J. M. W. Turner the oil painter in Mr. Turner, and since we're on Mike Leigh's home field he very nearly wins the battle.

I came to this film with no special interest in J. M. W. Turner's art. Like most people today, I am more familiar with the French Impressionists than their British predecessors, and I also find Turner's blues, grays, browns and yellows a difficult palette to love. (I learned in my post-viewing research that Turner's paintings were made with inferior crimsons that have badly faded, which may be why many modern art lovers like myself have trouble feeling as rapturous about Turner's paintings as did critics of his era like John Ruskin, who is portrayed in this film as an eager fanboy with a hilarious upper-class English drawl.)

Turner's paintings have faded, but Mike Leigh's film will certainly give his legacy new life. It occurred to me last year as I wrote about the American director Richard Linklater's remarkable Boyhood that Richard Linklater may be the closest thing the USA has to the genius of Mike Leigh, and I thought about Boyhood again as I watched Mr. Turner. Linklater and Leigh have a special quality in common: neither director is afraid to present a simply happy film.

Like Boyhood, Mr. Turner is a happy film not because it ignores tragedy and cruelty and pathos, but because it incorporates them into a stunning grand vision of redemption and love in an uncaring natural world.

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Timothy Spall plays the artist J. M. W. Turner in a beautiful new film directed by Mike Leigh.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015 04:56 am
Actor Timothy Spall with director Mike Leigh
Story
Levi Asher

You may have heard about Wittgenstein's poker, or Wittgenstein's nephew or Wittgenstein's mistress or Wittgenstein's ladder. For some reason that I don't fully understand, people like to read books about Wittgenstein's stuff.

Well, it's fitting that Ludwig Wittgenstein shows up in a lot of postmodern novels and pop-culture texts, because he really is that good, and his works really are that relevant today. This enigmatic Jewish-Austrian-Catholic 20th Century philosopher and schoolteacher's fame has grown after his death to the extent that he is now widely regarded as the most important thinker of our age.

There are many other literary treatments besides the four freakishly similar titles above. Ludwig Wittgenstein appears as one of the key signifiers in David Foster Wallace's The Broom of the System, a novel I didn't like very much. He also shows up in a new collegiate novel by Lars Iyer, Wittgenstein Jr, a comic whirl about a professor who is not Ludwig Wittgenstein and the unruly students who mock his lectures. I've just started this one and I'm at least enjoying it more than the David Foster Wallace.

But the best stuff I've been reading lately about Wittgenstein is Wittgenstein Day-by-Day, a serious and well-researched Facebook page that tracks Wittgenstein's diary entries as they were written 100 years ago. I've liked this project since its inception, but I began to feel riveted by it when we reached the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One in August. In the autumn of 1914, young Ludwig did the same thing most of his proud fellow young Austrians did. He signed up immediately to fight for his country and his emperor.

This required him to leave England, where he had been carrying on an extraordinarily fruitful collaboration with Bertrand Russell, because England was now Austria's enemy. The 25-year-old logic prodigy found himself on a guard boat called the Goplana on the River Vistula in September 1914. Wittgenstein: Day-by-Day narrates a short daily summary of his daily observations as these new surroundings begin to sink in.

Thursday 17th September, 1914: In his private diary, LW records that the previous night passed quietly, and that he had been on guard duty. The Goplana has sailed up the Vistula to Krakow, whose outskirts, he fears, will be ‘completely occupied by Cossacks’. He also reports that yesterday morning the Lieutenant left the ship and didn’t come back until noon today. No one knows what to do, and they don’t even have money to buy food. Nevertheless he finds himself still in good spirits. ‘Keep thinking about how I can maintain myself’, he finishes.

The young philosopher's format is consistent: he notes the military developments and actions of the day, along with his personal activities and emotions. He tries to find time to "work" -- that is, to indulge himself in his favorite hobby: the analysis of language and meaning, and the attempt to discover the logical foundation of logic itself.

Saturday 19th September, 1914: In his diary, LW records that yesterday evening he had to work up to 11pm on his searchlight. In the night it’s extremely cold, and the men have to sleep in their boots. LW slept badly. He hasn’t changed his clothes or his boots for four days. He worries what will happen to him in Krakow.

LW notes that a proposition like ‘this chair is brown’ seems to say something enormously complicated, since if we wanted to express it in such a way that nobody could raise objections to it on grounds of ambiguity, ‘it would have to be infinitely long’.

(The idea here seems to be that everyday propositions must have a single complete analysis which respects the ‘requirement that sense be determinate’ (Tractatus 3.23), this being equivalent to their being *wholly* unambiguous. Any temporary incompleteness in the specification of a determinate sense can only mean that the end of the analysis hasn’t yet been reached. It’s notable that LW prefers to imagine that the analysis might be infinitely long rather than contemplate the possibility that there’s no single correct analysis, or that the correct analysis represents the proposition as being in *any* respect ambiguous).

If young Ludwig is unhappy about his sudden change of circumstance from Cambridge to the Eastern Front, he barely shows it in this journal. Occasionally he expresses feelings of stress. He consoles himself at times with religious homilies.

Monday 21st September, 1914: In his diary, LW reports that this morning the Goplana arrived in Krakow. He had been on searchlight duty all night. Yesterday, he records, he did a lot of (philosophical) work, but he isn’t very hopeful, ‘because I lacked the right overview’. He also had a discussion with his platoon leader, which cleared the air a little. But today he is a little out of sorts, being still ‘so TIRED’ from many emotions. He notes that he has heard nothing from Vienna, but that he did receive a card from his mother, sent on August 20th. In the evening, though, he received the depressing news that the Lieutenant who had been his commanding officer has been transferred. ‘This news depressed me deeply. I can’t give an exact account, but it’s a compelling cause for despondency. Since then I’ve been deeply sad. Although I am free by the Spirit, the Spirit has left me!’. He ends by recording that he found himself able to do some (philosophical) work in the evening, and that this made him feel better.

From the calm tones of the journal entries up to October 17, 1914, it appears possible that Ludwig Wittgenstein himself did not even know how perilous a position he was in as he stood searchlight duty on this rickety guard boat.

The Vistula River was a hotspot in the autumn of 1914, and I'm not talking about wi-fi. He and his boat the Goplana were right in the middle of the Russian invasion of Galicia, a brutal and massive offensive that completely overran Austria's defensive position on its own territory. The Battle of Galicia in 1914 will go down in history not only as a bloody massacre, but also as a failure of management and planning that would crush the confidence of the Austro-Hungarian army, foretelling years of disaster still ahead.

Today, it's commonplace to ridicule every aspect of Austria's entry into World War One, since we know how the war will end. But in 1914 Austria-Hungary had not yet been crushed, and its a notable fact that a young man as bright as Ludwig Wittgenstein would join its army unthinkingly to defend the society that had raised him so well. He was in the First Army, under the leadership of General Viktor Dankl, who would be briefly celebrated on the home front as a hero for this army's early exploits before it became fully clear that the 1914 battles in Galicia had been a Russian rout.

As his journal entries made clear, Wittgenstein manned the searchlight on the Goplana -- almost too perfect a metaphor for a philosopher on a boat! We know that he was thinking about logic as his light beam pierced the dark skies over the gloomy Vistula. Was he also thinking about the decisions his army's leaders were making? Did he feel confident in Austria's fate, or had he begun to question the foundations of the military logic that had put him on this boat?

Wittgenstein's hopeless adventure with the anguished Austro-Hungarian First Army will presumably be continuing to play out as the centenary of the First World War proceeds on Wittgenstein Day-by-Day. This excellent Facebook page is the work of John Preston of the University of Reading's Philosophy Department. Preston also maintains an informative Wittgenstein Chronology.

I don't know if John Preston is thinking about turning these wartime journal extracts and summaries into a book, but I hope he does. It's a no-brainer what the book should be called: Wittgenstein's Searchlight. At least it'll sell.

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For some reason that I don't fully understand, people like to read books about Ludwig Wittgenstein's stuff.

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Saturday, October 18, 2014 11:40 am
Wittgenstein's journals on Facebook
Story
Levi Asher

D. G. Myers, a celebrated literary critic, professor and blogger, died quietly of cancer in late September. For many like me who only knew D. G. Myers through his writings and online presence, his death was no surprise. We had read about it on A Commonplace Blog or in Time magazine, or in his much-praised podcast for the Library of Economics and Liberty just a few months before he died.

As his cancer worsened, D. G. Myers also expressed his feelings in occasional bursts on his beautiful Twitter account. Always a writer first, his tweets were unfailingly elegant, measured and dignified. Even when he could only manage bitter humor and wry regret for his family's shared suffering as he tweeted his way through chemotherapy during his last weeks on Earth:

D. G. Myers accomplished many impressive things during his literary life: he was a celebrated professor, wrote a book about the history of creative writing programs called The Elephants Teach, was a columnist for Commentary magazine until he got ceremoniously fired for supporting gay marriage. But his online writings and tweets should be numbered among his works. I've extracted just a few samples from his final month to pay tribute to D. G. Myers.

In his last month, Myers knew that he was about to die, and shared this fact with us. He expressed himself often with a bitter sense of humor about the terrible injustice he felt at his own fate: a vigorous man in his early sixties, a father of a close family with young children, a man with so many more books he wanted to read before he died. Myers never raged, because he was too proud a critic to lose his temper, but he also did not go gentle.

He interacted often with other tweeters (including myself), and had a natural, easygoing online voice. Occasionally, he'd offer a raw opinion:

He'd tweet about his struggles to collect his writings before he died, and about the indignities that faced a literary writer who had lost all commercial potential:

He'd tweet about baseball, or writing, or his wife and children, or Israel, or any combination thereof:

Or he'd paint a picture:

Or another:

Sometimes (especially when the physical pain seemed to be getting to him) he seemed to be tweeting koans:

D. G. Myers's religiosity made him unique as a cancer memoirist. He was a devout Jew, and his unabashed enthusiasm for religion clearly gave him strength. He spoke up often on behalf of conservative positions, most of which I disagreed with him about, but I always sensed that he favored conservativism because he favored traditional religion.

Judaism appeared to be one of his major areas of knowledge, and his Biblical and Talmudic inspirations enriched his writing. It certainly also helped him cope with his disease, bestowing upon him a placid and philosophical attitude that was probably alien to his argumentative nature. At least, he must have understood, he didn't have it as bad as Job.

A Jewish son makes a father very proud right here. These might be his best tweets ever:

Or this one might be. It's the one I'll remember the most:

* * * * *

I had a few wonderful interactions with D. G. Myers via our blogs or Twitter. Philip Roth was his favorite novelist, and in 2010 I wrote a smart-ass consideration of Philip Roth. I was very surprised when D. G. Myers called it "a spectacular read". I was actually hoping he wouldn't read it, because I didn't think it would meet his standards. I've rarely felt more honored than by this tweet.

Later, D. G. Myers and I discovered that we had an obscure favorite in common: Richard P. Brickner, who had been my writing workshop teacher at the New School. Myers believed that Brickners's 1981 novel Tickets was an unheralded masterpiece of the 1980s, and I agreed. I've never met anyone else who's even heard of this book.

D. G. Myers and I also shared an interest in the postmodern fiction of the 1960s, though his knowledge of the era is much more scholarly than my own.

Thank you for the photo at the top of the page to Gil Roth of Chimera Obscura, who had the honor of taking the picture that Myers chose for his last Twitter profile. You can listen to the Chimera Obscura/Virtual Memories podcast with D. G. Myers here.

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Celebrated professor, literary critic and blogger D. G. Myers kept in touch with his readers on Twitter as he died of cancer in September 2014.

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Thursday, October 9, 2014 09:25 pm
Literary Critic and blogger D. G. Myers
Story
Levi Asher

Don Carpenter was a writer’s writer. Born in Berkeley, California in 1931, he grew up there and in Portland, Oregon, served in the Air Force during the Korean War, and returned to earn a B.S. from Portland State and an M.A. in creative writing from San Francisco State. In 1966 his first novel Hard Rain Falling was published to critical acclaim, and for the rest of his life he was a professional writer. He lived in Mill Valley, California and was part of a group of writers—Evan Connell, Curt Gentry, Leonard Gardner, Gina Berriault and others—who met regularly at the Book Depot there, and at the no name bar in Sausalito.

Carpenter was never as successful or celebrated as his good friend Richard Brautigan. His novels and short story collections were praised by critics and fellow writers but did not sell well. He found work in Hollywood as a screenwriter, most notably for an unproduced screenplay of Charles Bukowski’s Post Office, and for Payday, starring Rip Torn as a country music singer. His novel about show business, A Couple of Comedians, was praised by Norman Mailer as “the best novel I’ve ever read about contemporary show biz.” Anne Lamott dedicated her 1994 book Bird by Bird to Carpenter, and praised his then work in progress Fridays at Enrico’s as a masterpiece in the making.

After Carpenter’s suicide death in 1995, his daughter, Bonnie Carpenter Howard, became executor of his literary estate, coping with an unwieldy mass of manuscripts, letters, clippings and photographs, the detritus of a writer’s life. She eventually placed his archive in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.

By the early 2000’s, Carpenter’s books were out of print but not out of reach. I remember reading a few of his novels simply by borrowing them from Sonoma and Mendocino County public libraries, and easily and inexpensively obtaining others at used book stores. More recently a couple of younger writers, George Pelecanos and Jonathan Lethem, have championed his work. In 2009 Hard Rain Falling, was reissued by New York Review of Books with a new introduction by George Pelecanos, and this year Fridays at Enrico's, “finished” and with an new afterword by Jonathan Lethem, was published by Counterpoint Press. Counterpoint has also announced a 2015 publication of his “Hollywood Trilogy”: A Couple of Comedians, The True Story of Jody McKeegan, and Turnaround.

Hard Rain Falling has been praised as a great hard-boiled novel, a novel of juvenile delinquency and an inside look at prison life. I’m not exactly on the bandwagon here. I’m glad I read it. I particularly like the opening section and some of the poolroom scenes, but I think it drags in places, spends too much time inside the head of the protagonist and, like a lot of first novels, tries to do too much. It’s not a fast-paced pulp novel, and it's not quite literary fiction. It falls in between and is hard to categorize, an ongoing problem for Carpenter in his quest for commercial success.

Fridays at Enrico’s is a different kettle of fish. It’s a writers’ book from the word go, the story of two aspiring novelists named Charlie Monel and Jaime Froward. Initially I was charmed by this book’s evocation of San Francisco in 1959. There are plenty of authentic details of the place and time: Figone Hardware on Grant, the Hot Dog Palace on Columbus, McDonald’s Used Books on Turk Street (“where most books are priced at 50 cents”), the Co-Existence Bagel Shop, the Place, the Coffee Gallery, Tosca Café, and Charlie’s $45/month North Beach apartment. Some of the scenes bring to mind Jerry Kamstra’s The Frisco Kid, set in North Beach during this same era.

I was also curious that the novel’s Library of Congress description starts with: "Beat Generation-Fiction". Yes, there are some scenes in North Beach, but the only prominent writer in evidence is old Walter Van Tilburg Clark at San Francisco State. It’s not until the book’s second section, set in Portland two years later, that the Beat connection becomes explicit. New characters are introduced, including Linda McNeil, who used to live in S. F. and knew “Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso.” Still, it’s misleading to characterize this as novel of the Beat Generation. Linda never becomes a central character, and prominent writers, except for Clark and two brief appearances by Brautigan, are not used as characters. The book’s title is also somewhat misleading. Enrico’s was a North Beach bar/restaurant where Carpenter and many other writers used to hang out, drink and talk about life and writing. This novel is about life and writing, hence the title. But scenes at Enrico’s are at a minimum.

With that said, I love this book and its characters. Carpenter does not deal in types but creates real people the reader cares about and wants to spend time with. And he does not seem to work at verisimilitude, but simply lays things out the way they really were. The action covers a period of 15 years and moves from San Francisco to Portland, back to the Bay Area, to San Quentin Prison and to Los Angeles.

The section called “C Block” is mostly about Stan Winger, an aspiring writer and petty criminal whom Charlie and Jaime befriend in Portland. I was thinking I wouldn’t like this part of the book, that it would be an ironic and moralizing comparison of prison life with free society. But I was wrong. It is mostly about writing and writers. While incarcerated at San Quentin, Stan decides to use Dashiell Hammett as a model and figure out how to write hard-boiled stories. He plots out a novel, Felony Fuzz:

He knew if he was to sell it to Fawcett it had to be like the other Gold Medals, fast action, clear straight language, no bullshit ... pulp fiction, none of that silly sentimentality.

This section reads easily, with short, clipped sentences echoing its subject matter. Stan gets out of prison and finds success as a writer of fast-paced novels and as a Hollywood screenwriter, where being an ex-con is no handicap, but gives him more clout with directors and producers. He eventually reunites with Charlie and Jaime. Some of their interactions are reminiscent of scenes in Larry McMurtry’s Terms of Endearment and All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers.

There are plenty of surprising turns of event as Charlie, Jamie, Stan and their colleagues cope with the vicissitudes of the writing life. I enjoyed each of the novel’s 85 chapters, which could almost have headings like: The Sweet San Francisco Air, Brand New 1961 Volkswagen, The Honorable Book Scout, and so on.

Of course questions loom about what shape this manuscript was in before Jonathan Lethem worked on it. His afterword states that he did some cutting and rearranging but did not add a great deal: “There might be five or eight pages of my writing.” Whatever he did, it was unobtrusive and seamless. This is Don Carpenter’s book, and it’s one that all the writers I know will want to read.

While the current Carpenter revival may not raise his reputation to the level of Brautigan’s or Connell’s, it’s heartening to know that the work of a very good writer has not been lost or forgotten.

For more information about Don Carpenter, and some excellent short pieces by him, check out the Don Carpenter Page or Woody Haut’s blog. Bonnie Howard has also started a Don Carpenter page on Facebook. Finally, here's a Don Carpenter original on Litkicks: the author's memoir of a 1964 poetry reading at the Longshoreman's Hall in San Francisco.

* * * * *

(Thanks again to Dan Barth, who has been writing about hippie-era authors like Ed McClanahan and Richard Brautigan on Literary Kicks for nearly as long as this site has been around!)

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Hippie-era hard-boiled novelist Don Carpenter's books never sold well while he was alive, but George Pelecanos and Jonathan Lethem are urging new readers to discover him.

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Thursday, August 28, 2014 05:27 pm
Don Carpenter, floating in difference clouds.
Story
Dan Barth

"It was a lust for political power." - Bob Woodward

"There is no simple answer." - John Dean

President Richard Nixon, caught in a big lie, resigned in disgrace forty years ago. As we commemorate our shared memories of this astounding political scandal today, we are unwittingly basking in a new layer of delusion and willful untruth.

Yes, we conceal the truth today about Watergate, especially when we talk about the original motive for the crime, and when we try to analyze the lessons learned. I've enjoyed watching a couple of new television shows that interview the principals in the affair, but I can't help cringing at the level of voluntary obfuscation, of creative contextualizing. The gauze of popular self-delusion about Watergate does not serve a sinister political purpose but rather serves our need for comfortable conclusions, for meaningful metaphor (which may be meaningful even when it does not reveal a truth), for the dubious entertainment of banal psychobiography. It's easier to demonize Nixon than it is to realize that the disease that brought this President down is widely shared by others.

Bob Woodward sums up the popular understanding of the motive with a critique of Nixon's overreach: "It was a lust for political power". Well, Bob Woodward is a great journalistic hero, but he's evidently lost his sharpness over the last forty years, because this is a limp cliche. At the time of the Watergate break-in, Richard Nixon had already gathered immense political power. The opposition Democratic party had lost its ability to unite behind a single leader and win national elections because it had become hopelessly split between old guard and new radicals (similar to the way the Republican party is split and cannot unite to win a national election today). The Nixon-Agnew ticket was absolutely secure in the upcoming 1972 election, and this election would indeed produce a historic landslide.

Yet there was great anxiety in 1972 within the Nixon administration, and this anxiety had nothing to do with electoral politics. It had to do with the war that the United States of America was badly losing to the little Communist nation of North Vietnam, and it had to do with the massive protest movement in this country against the Vietnam War. Since so many Nixon administration principals have shared their stories, and since so many recordings of actual White House conversations can be heard, we know exactly what Nixon and his staffers were worried about in 1972.

They were worried about internal agents for foreign enemies, Communist spies, homegrown traitors or saboteurs who had nestled into the government apparatus. After his election in 1968, President Nixon tried to run the White House and the State Department and the Pentagon as a tight ship, closely controlled from the top. But he and his top staff found the large government bureaucracy impossible to control. Nixon had total loyalty within his staff, but he could not trust anyone at the State Department or the National Security Council (not even Henry Kissinger!), nor at the Pentagon.

This problem suddenly escalated dramatically when a military staff analyst named Daniel Ellsberg infiltrated national security in 1971 to release the Pentagon Papers, a set of secret internal documents about the Vietnam War. I have written about the strong connection between the Ellsberg case and the Watergate scandal before and I consider this point so important that I am now writing about it again: the release of the Pentagon Papers provides the entire explanation for everything that happened in the Watergate affair. The White House reaction to the release of the Pentagon Papers is the key. Once you put the Watergate pieces together with Daniel Ellsberg as the first piece in the puzzle, everything else falls logically and simply into place. It's commonplace to say that Watergate is a mystery today, but in fact the mystery has been thoroughly solved.

All we have to do is look at what happened, not in 1972 when election season began but in 1971 after the Pentagon Papers were released. Startled by the devastating realization that a "Communist spy" (in fact Ellsberg was not a Communist spy, but to Nixon's staff he was damn close enough) could infiltrate the Pentagon, the Nixon administration became terrified that they were losing the espionage war against their sneaky global enemies. The stunned reaction at the Presidential level can be clearly seen in the recorded White House conversations that took place at the time, and in many memoirs of the Nixon administration that would follow. They weren't talking about how to win the 1972 election; they had that sewn up. They were worried that they'd be blindsided by the next Daniel Ellsberg, and they were deeply, desperately worried about this.

Nixon and his top staff felt helpless and weak against this invisible foreign and domestic opposition. They were now convinced that they were weaker on espionage and dirty tricks than their enemies. These enemies did not include the Democratic party (which was weak and internally divided) but rather the nation's enemies: Russia and China and Cuba and Vietnam. It also included various unknown disloyal American protest leaders and hippies and Ivy Leaguers and New York Times journalists who sympathized with Russia and China and Cuba and Vietnam, several of whom seemed to have collaborated in the illegal release of the Pentagon Papers. Nixon and his top aides were sincerely frightened.

So, these top aides responded to the release of the Pentagon Papers by making the original mistake that would eventually lead to the Watergate scandal. A unit that nicknamed itself "The Plumbers" was formed in the summer of 1971 to develop a capacity to carry out secret illegal operations on behalf of the White House. The group was led by two highly self-important but foolish gung-ho pro-Americans with espionage experience: E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy.

Here is the vital point to understand: this secret team was specifically designed to operate illegally. They didn't break the law to achieve particular goals; rather, demonstrating the ability to break the law without getting caught was the entire goal. The reasoning of Nixon's top staff went like this: "we are besieged by spies who are breaking the law, and we don't know how to fight back. We have to match strength with strength and learn how to play the same game our enemies are playing."

Some may wonder how the White House could have trusted two shady blowhards like E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, and empowered them to act on the administration's behalf. But it was exactly because they were shady blowhards that Hunt and Liddy were hired. They were tough guys who could brag about actual spy operations they had carried out. They looked impressively sneaky and scary. They knew how to handle microphones and suitcases and cameras and copying machines. They even styled their names like J. Edgar Hoover.

If Hunt and Liddy could carry out a few not-quite-legal operations on the White House's behalf, then Nixon and his top aides could rest comfortably with the knowledge that they had a secret espionage team that could equal the espionage team they were sure their enemies already had. This is the kind of logic that only starts to make sense in time of war, and only starts to make a lot of sense when the war is going badly. Therefore, the primary motivation for the Watergate scandal can be found not in Richard Nixon's personality but in the fact that we were losing the Vietnam War.

So the hapless Plumbers showed up to work at the White House after the release of the Pentagon Papers, but they had one big problem. They couldn't think of any actual useful mission to carry out. Hilariously, unbelievably, the best idea they came up with was to break into the private office of Daniel Ellsberg's pyschiatrist in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles to see what embarrassing information they could find.

E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy pulled off this operation successfully in September 1971, though they found no information they could use against Ellsberg. Hunt and Liddy then used the same burglary team and the same weird techniques in the summer of 1972 to burglarize the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate Office Building. The Watergate burglary had no clearer purpose than the earlier burglary of the psychiatrist's office. Both operations were practice drills, proofs of concept. The Plumbers had to do something to prove their usefulness, and that's why Watergate happened.

"There is no simple answer" says John Dean in 2014 in one of several enjoyable TV specials commemorating the anniversary of Nixon's resignation. Why would a smart guy like John Dean satisfy himself with this trite and incorrect formulation? There is a simple answer: the motivation for the Watergate break-in was the Nixon administration's fear that it could not compete with the espionage capabilities of its enemies. The cover-up that followed was also seen by Nixon as a battle against hidden enemies within the media establishment, and thus the cover-up was also motivated by fear.

This can be clearly seen in the quote at the top of this page, which I screen-grabbed from another 40th anniversary TV show called Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words:

We're up against an enemy, a conspiracy. They're using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear? - Richard Nixon

There's your smoking gun. The rationale for Watergate wasn't lust for power. It wasn't greed. It wasn't Richard Nixon's unique psychology. It was fear for national security, fear of fatal weakness, stoked by a terrible war that was going badly.

As I mentioned above, I've laid out my theory of Watergate on this blog before, and I am repeating my theory today because I think it amounts to a solid and sensible interpretation of the historical facts that are there for anyone to see. I'm frustrated that so many accounts of the Watergate scandal don't even mention Daniel Ellsberg or the Pentagon Papers, even though it's a plain simple fact that everything that happened in 1972 was a direct consequence of what happened in 1971. I'm disappointed our national memory of the Watergate affair so often trivializes it into a morality tale, or a psychological biography, or a mystery novel, or a slapstick comedy.

In fact, our taste for metaphor and pop psychology has clouded our understanding of the basic facts about the Watergate break-in. Sure, everything that happened from June 1972 to August 1974 was incredible and meaningful and fascinating in many different ways, and there's no reason we shouldn't indulge in a creative contextualization of history to explore possible interpretations. But sometimes our contextualized interpretations overwhelm our basic view of what actually happened, and I think this tendency has led to a systematic historical misunderstanding of Watergate. Mostly, we like to marvel at the quirky and clumsy persona of Richard Nixon himself, and this is where most popular analysis of the Watergate scandal begins and ends.

That's unfortunate, because there was a wider significance to Nixon's fall, and a broader moral to the fable. As much as we enjoy demonizing or laughing at (or, sometimes, sympathizing with) Richard Nixon for his awkward personality and his five o'clock shadow and his square 1950s mindest, the terribly bungled Watergate break-in really wasn't the product of Richard Nixon himself. It was the work of many individuals (Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Egil Krogh, Fred LaRue, Maurice Stans, John Mitchell, Jeb Magruder, Charles Colson) with diverse personalities and motivations and backgrounds.

Strangely, they all thought it was logical to form a group called the Plumbers who would develop a White House capacity to carry out covert operations. No member of Nixon's team objected as this group proceeded to burglarize Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office and then the DNC headquarters. It seemed to make sense to all of them.

This seems to point to the existence in 1972 of a kind of delusion that was shared between many individuals, and certainly did not exist only in the mind of Richard Nixon. In fact, the need for the White House to develop a capacity to carry out illegal espionage operations was so easy to understand that many of Nixon's supporters responded to the Watergate arrests by urging Nixon to simply confess that his administration had ordered the operation and apologize. After all, they said, President Lyndon Johnson had done the same kinds of dirty tricks, and had also planted microphones (and indeed this was true). Many Americans believed that an apology from President Nixon for the Watergate break-in would have sufficed, and it probably would have.

But Nixon didn't apologize in 1972, and his popular presidency was utterly destroyed. And forty years later today the Vietnam War is over, and Nixon is gone, long gone, forever gone, dead.

It seems, though, that our human capacity for shared delusion remains very much alive.

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We love to psychoanalyze Richard Nixon, but Watergate wasn't really about one man's delusions. It was about the shared delusion of a nation that was losing a war in Vietnam.

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Saturday, August 9, 2014 11:11 am
Screenshot from "Nixon by Nixon", an HBO documentary
Story
Levi Asher

Sure, every other obituary of 86-year-old Brooklyn novelist Daniel Keyes is going to talk about Flowers for Algernon. And, yeah, that was his best book. But I'm going to talk about The Touch, simply because I remember this novel well, and because nobody else is going to mention it.

As a lonely middle school kid, I was so desperate for good books that I would bottom-feed the local library stacks, looking for off-hit books by writers who were (I could already tell at my young age) literary one-hit wonders. This is why during the waning years of the Summer of Love and the waxing years of the Me Decade I read Love, Roger by Charles Webb (author of The Graduate), David Meyer is a Mother by Gail Parent (author of Sheila Levine), This Perfect Day by Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby). And it's why I read The Touch by Daniel Keyes, author of the powerful Flowers for Algernon. I suppose I was also attracted to The Touch by the mod cover design, which reveals Daniel Keyes trying to reach a hip adult literary audience. That never quite happened, but we'll always have Flowers for Algernon.

The Touch was about what happens when radioactivity intrudes upon the life on an ordinary American family. An industrial engineer is briefly exposed to some dangerous dust during a laboratory maneuver. This soon changes everything in his life, as gossip about his accident causes even his best friends to fear his touch of death, so that he and his pregnant wife are suddenly ostracized. We see how an industrial accident ends up turning into an even worse human accident, a collapse of civility, a descent into blind prejudice.

This is a bleak book, but also thrilling in its creepy sense of a systematic mindless menace invading our lives. I distinctly remember being gripped by a couple of vivid scenes: the stunned engineer rushing into a shower to wash off the dangerous substance, and later the frustrated and ruined man taking out his anger on a lump of clay in a studio. (The book's toxic hero, if I remember correctly, worked as an automobile model sculptor).

The Touch was a bleak book, and, well, Flowers for Algernon was a bleak book too. Especially that gut-punch ending, and the way the narrator and hero Charly's mental condition was reflected in the language he used in these final pages.

It's a funny thing: I always hated this book's cover. I thought the book had a lousy title too. Flowers for the mouse? How about some damn flowers for Charly? He suffered a lot worse than the mouse.

Daniel Keyes, fortunately, appears to have lived a happy life, though he never repeated his single great success, which was also turned into a mediocre movie called Charly (an even worse title!) starring Cliff Robertson and Claire Bloom. Before he was a novelist, Daniel Keyes worked in the comics business in New York City, where the germ of the idea that became Flowers for Algernon was first pitched as a possible comic book plot.

Daniel Keyes lived in Brooklyn, making it a good bet that many young writers must have run into him often at corner delis and on Prospect Park walkways without knowing that he was the author who wrote the novel they loved in junior high, like I did too.

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Daniel Keyes, author of "Flowers for Algernon" and "The Touch", has died at the age of 86.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014 07:53 pm
The Touch by Daniel Keyes
Story
Levi Asher

One Hundred Years of Solitude must be Gabriel Garcia Marquez's best title, and it's the book that made him famous all over the world. But I somehow neglected to finish that epic novel, and was more attracted instead to Love in the Time of Cholera, a book so good it would probably have made the Colombian author famous again if he hadn't been already. I also enjoyed Marquez's The General in His Labyrinth, and I wonder if I specially favor these two novels because they both employ a vivid setting: Colombia's Magdalena River.

I'm a fool for riparian literature, perhaps because rivers hold such great spiritual significance (from the Jordan to the Ganges), or because they work so well as metaphor, whether the characters are lazily floating downstream like Huck Finn or tensely steaming up against the current like Marlow in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. My fascination with rivers makes Love in the Time of Cholera a natural for me, since this novel is basically a happy Heart of Darkness with senior sex. The ever patient Florentino Ariza has waited an entire lifetime to lie in the arms of his beloved Fermina Daza, and after many decades he finally outlasts her husband and scores with her on a boat heading up the mighty Magdalena. (Ariza's patience is his one great power, a character trait so distinct it earned him a seat in my hypothetical literary poker tournament a few years ago).

The river is a constant presence in this novel. Early in the story, Ariza escapes his heartbreak by travelling up the river, where the beauty that surrounds him is disturbed by visions of the cholera epidemic currently gripping the land:

The days were easy for him as he sat at the rail, watching the motionless alligators sunning themselves on sandy banks, their mouths open to catch butterflies, watching the flocks of startled herons that rose without warning from the marshes, the manatees that nursed their young at large maternal teats and startled the passengers with their woman's cries. On a single day he saw three bloated, green, human corpses float past, with buzzards sitting on them.

Many decades later, he manages to persuade his unreachable Fermina Daza to join him for a new journey up the same river. They are now both over seventy years old, and now even the river has changed, has gone dry in many places.

She was embarrassed when she greeted him, and he was more embarrassed by her embarrassment. The knowledge that they were behaving as if they were sweethearts was even more embarrassing, and the knowledge that they were both embarrassed embarrassed them so much that Captain Samaritano noticed it with a tremor of compassion. He extricated them from their difficulty by spending the next two hours explaining the controls and the general operation of the ship. They were sailing very slowly up a river without banks that meandered between arid sandbars stretching to the horizon. But unlike the troubled waters at the mouth of the river, these were slow and clear and gleamed like metal under the merciless sun. Fermina Daza had the impression that it was a delta filled with islands of sand.

"It is all the river we have left," said the Captain.

Florentino Ariza, in fact, was surprised by the changes, and would be even more surprised the following day, when navigation became more difficult and he realized that the Magdalena, father of waters, one of the great rivers of the world, was only an illusion of memory. Captain Samaritano explained to them how fifty years of uncontrolled deforestation had destroyed the river: the boilers of the riverboats had consumed the thick forest of colossal trees that had oppressed Florentino Ariza on his first voyage.

Two years ago, it was announced that South America's most beloved writer would not be writing any new books. We'd already heard rumors that Gabo's mental abilities were declining, and his family now confirmed that the novelist had senile dementia, or Alzheimer's disease.

This is always a shocking diagnosis for any victim, and for the families and loved ones of any victim. It's hard to imagine the sharp mind of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the torment of constant confusion, and his readers must wonder how much (if any) of his literary or artistic sensitivity may have remained during his final years. "It is all the river we have left," said the Captain. I don't know how Gabriel Garcia Marquez lived out his last years, but I like to pretend or imagine that he might have been taken on a boat ride on the river he described so well.

The ship left the bay with its boilers quiet, made its way along the channels through blankets of taruya, the river lotus with purple blossoms and large heart-shaped leaves, and returned to the marshes. The water was iridescent with the universe of fishes floating on their sides, killed by the dynamite of stealthy fishermen, and all the birds of the earth and the water circled above them with metallic cries. The wind from the Caribbean blew in the windows along with the racket made by the birds, and Fermina Daza felt in her blood the wild bleating of her free will. To her right, the muddy, frugal estuary of the Great Magdalena River spread out to the other side of the world.

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In 'Love in the Time of Cholera', an elderly man finally fulfills a lifelong dream of love during a journey up the Magdalena River.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014 12:45 pm
Colombia's Magdalena River
Story
Levi Asher