Language

Tom McCarthy is a popular British avant-garde novelist with a forbidding public image. He writes technological dystopian fiction that looks at the world with the same cold sinister stare as that of Chuck Palahniuk or William Vollmann, and he physically resembles Dwight Schrute from "The Office". He doesn't come across as a very warm person.

But is this a mirage? I'm liking Tom McCarthy more and more with each new book, and I'm starting to understand the earnest moral passion and conviction behind the sociological concepts that animate his literary experiments. When I first began reading him, I was slightly put off by his cackling, sarcastic persona. I was also mystified by the fact that he balances his fiction writing with "propaganda" on behalf of a shadowy organization devoted to experimental investigations into death.

Yet his novels somehow compel me in, and once inside a Tom McCarthy novel the cold persona quickly starts to fall away. There is in fact something strangely warm, human and relatable about Tom McCarthy, which is why he's emerging as the most interesting postmodern author on the scene today.

I've just finished Satin Island, a new Tom McCarthy novel nearly as mind-blowing as his signature work, Remainder. Satin Island is not as sharply plotted as the astonishing Remainder, but it is a smoother ride, more joyfully and consistently composed, a beautiful and enjoyable exhibit of highly observant prose. In place of a plot, Satin Island reads like a fabric of ideas, a quilt of threads ranging from Claude Levi-Strauss to Jacques Derrida to William S. Burroughs to James Joyce.

The book is narrated by a young anthropologist who has been co-opted by a gigantic mega-corporation to help produce a functional study of every facet of human existence, a project called Koob-Sassen that vaguely resembles a nightmare we may all lately be having about the all-powerful secret control systems that the NSA might be building right now, if they really are as evil as we sometimes think.

We never understand the full nature of Koob-Sassen, but we can see that it is some kind of attempt at oligarchic world control, and that the successful execution of the project requires extremely clever and innovative thinking on the part of the hired anthropologists, who frequently compare notes around the office. To control everybody else, these anthropologists must be the smartest people in the world, must figure out every game, every scheme:

As I stepped out of the blind spot back into time and his office, he asked: Have you ever been to Seattle, U.? Behind him, through the floor-to-ceiling windows, cranes, clouds, bridges, aeroplanes, the Thames all jostled for position. No, I answered. It's interesting, he said. Oh yes? I asked. How so? Well, he replied the truly striking thing about the city is its lack of Starbucks outlets: driving around, you don't see a single one. That's strange, I said: I thought Seattle was where Starbucks came from. Exactly, he said: you'd think the town would turn out to just be one giant Starbucks. But instead it's all Joe's Cappuccino Bar, Espresso Luigi, Pacific Coffee Shack and the like. So what's the story there? I asked. What's the story indeed? he repeated. This is exactly what I asked my driver, and do you know what he told me? Penman looked up from his device. I shook my head. He told me, Peyman said, his gaze now drifting over to his monitor, that these were Starbucks: stealth ones.

McCarthy is a highly connective author, and Satin Island streams forth with literary references. The tiny man inside a giant bureaucracy calls to mind Franz Kafka's The Castle. The frightening (and probably already accurate) notion that a corporation can hire skilled anthropologists to develop capabilities for mass mind control evokes Dana Spiotta's Eat The Document. The vision of one of these anthropologists struggling to maintain his sense of self within this creepy milieu beckons J. M. Coetzee's first novel Dusklands, in which the mega-corporation is the US government during the war in Vietnam, and in which the researcher goes horrifyingly insane.

McCarthy's greatest gift is his sly and unpretentious writing style, his sensitivity for realism, his light touch with a heavy idea. In Satin Island, he captures a universe in which everything is just slightly off, just slightly inferior to what it's supposed to be. Reality appears to the narrator to have become a cut-rate version of itself, as when he goes to the funeral of a close friend and is appalled at the lack of effort that goes into the funeral, especially when he hears speeches filled with banal and generic non-facts that don't even accurately describe his close friend who just died.

In a Tom McCarthy universe, even something as benevolent as a good idea is likely to sickeningly turn over and expose its soft underbelly. One day the narrator is thrilled that he has discovered the answer to a puzzling mystery involving dead parachutists. He is bouncing off the walls with excitement about his discovery. A few pages later, he realizes that his brilliant idea is not only wrong but wasn't even very well thought-out to begin with, and his mood crashes with the hammer-blow of this truth.

Satin Island reads like a fabric, and in fact fabrics are all over Satin Island: the shroud of Turin, the complex textures of fine satin and rough dungaree denim, the silk of a parachute, even the fabric of humanity found at the lower tip of Manhattan island when the hero of the novel visits the Staten Island Ferry but decides not to get on. As I finished Satin Island I began to understand that Tom McCarthy writes these novels because he actually cares about humanity. He's worried about us all, and about what we've done, and what we're about to do next:

I lay awake for a long time, thinking of what she'd said. Levi-Strauss claims that, for the isolated tribe with whom an anthropologist makes first contact -- the tribe who, after being studied, will be decimated by diseases to which they've no resistance, then (if they've survived) converted to Christianity and, eventually, conscripted into semi-bonded labour my mining and logging companies -- for them, civilization represents no less than a cataclysm. This cataclysm, he says, is the true face of our culture -- the one that's turned away, from us at least.

4

Why Tom McCarthy is emerging as the best postmodern novelist on the scene today.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015 07:47 am
Satin Island, a novel by Tom McCarthy
Story
Levi Asher

When I'm feeling stressed out, I head for nature. I found myself driving to Old Rag Mountain in Virginia's Shenandoah range this weekend.

I've done a few amazing hikes in this region: Mary's Rock, Catoctin, Hawksbill, Big Schloss, sometimes with others and sometimes alone. The challenging eight-mile Old Rag hike has been calling out to me for a while. I'm planning to leave Virginia this summer and head north (whether to Washington DC or New York City is still unknown), so I decided the time had come for me to meet Old Rag, an Appalachian mountain famous for "the scramble", a popular and slightly dangerous trail over giant rocks, into tunnels, across crevices, under ponderous overhangs. The scramble leads directly to a set of peaks marked by improbable boulders that you can stand on to get a 360 degree view.

New York City has "the ramble" -- the most beautiful section of Central Park, joining Bethesda Fountain to Strawberry Fields. But Virginia has "the scramble", and I suppose one reason I needed to climb Old Rag before leaving this state is that I couldn't bear to not complete the rhyme.

A nature walk is always a literary experience, if you just allow it to be. "There Is a Mountain" by Donovan happened to come on my shuffle mode as I drove towards the beginning of the trail, and that felt like a good omen. This upbeat 1960s song finds Donovan at his most Zen:

First there is a mountain,
Then there is no mountain
Then there is.

Indeed, yes -- story of my life, in fact. This 3-minute tune from the height of the 1960s hippie era had a second life in 1971: the Allman Brothers loved it so much that they transformed it into "Mountain Jam", a 34-minute Duane Allman/Dickey Betts masterpiece in which they never bothered to sing the words at all. Now that's Zen.

The scramble was as exciting as I had hoped, and much of the excitement came from the spirit of community that necessarily occurs as hikers saunter up together to each new obstacle or wedge or overhang or tunnel, sometimes comparing different ideas about the best way to traverse, helping each other by holding backpacks, swapping camera phones for selfies. Many of the passages between and under rocks offered brilliant contrasts of shade and light. This tunnel made me think of Plato's cave, and of a Leonard Cohen song:

There is a crack in everything
It's how the light gets in.

"Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit," Edward Abbey once said. Hell yeah, though this is a necessity that many human beings probably get very little of at all. This is one of the narrow passages leading to the peak:

I wasn't sure what to expect from Old Rag, but nobody had told me I would see a giant overhanging rock that looms like Moby Dick, gliding through the ocean:

Ralph Waldo Emerson, striking a chord also found in the Tao Te Ching, once wrote: "Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience." He also once said this: "I found when I had finished my new lecture that it was a very good house, only the architect had unfortunately omitted the stairs.” Rock-hewn staircases tend to suddenly appear on the Old Rag trail at the points where they are most needed.

Nature is often hurtful. At one point I encountered a young woman on the ground worrying over a sprained ankle, surrounded by a large group of friends trying to figure out what the hell to do. I had a feeling she was going to walk it off, and if she couldn't walk it off she had enough friends to handle the situation, so I knew it'd be okay for me to walk on.

There's hazard in the hills, and there is melancholy too. Here's Bill Bryson in A Walk in the Woods, an enjoyable Appalachian Trail travelogue:

And thus I was to be found, in the first week of June, standing on the banks of the Shenandoah again, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, blinking at a grey sky and trying to pretend with all my heart that this was where I wanted to be.

My favorite mountain novel is probably Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, a romantic Civil War tale in which the North Carolina Smokies blooms with the fresh joyful abundance that echoes the miraculous love between the story's two heroes. The main traveller in Cold Mountain is a fugitive from the Confederate Army. He spends a lot of time hiding out and running from trouble, and doesn't have the luxury to sit and enjoy peak vistas like this one:

Old Rag is more exciting than dangerous, really, and I saw many teenagers and families with small kids on the trail. This family enjoyed a picnic on the peak. That's the way to do it.

So "Mountain Jam" is my favorite mountain song and Cold Mountain is my favorite mountain novel. My favorite single mountain quotation comes from Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums. The narrator is following his expert climber friend Japhy Ryder up a forbidding Sierra Nevada trail. When they reach the main peak, the exhausted narrator only wants to bask in pleasure and relief, but is disconcerted to discover that there are now peaks upon the peaks, and that to truly reach the very, very top of this mountain requires the most treacherous final short climb of all.

The narrator of Dharma Bums is exhausted and decides to refrain from the final difficult scramble to the very peak. He watches Japhy Ryder go up without him, and then has an epiphany when Japhy Ryder returns:

Then suddenly everything was just like jazz: it happened in one insane second or so: I looked up and saw Japhy running down the mountain in huge twenty-foot leaps, running, leaping, landing with a great drive of his booted heels, bouncing five feet or so, running, then taking another long crazy yelling yodelaying sail down the sides of the world and in that flash I realized it’s impossible to fall off mountains you fool and with a yodel of my own I suddenly got up and began running down the mountain after him doing exactly the same huge leaps, the same fantastic runs and jumps, and in the space of about five minutes I’d guess Japhy Ryder and I (in my sneakers, driving the heels of my sneakers right into sand, rock, boulders, I didn’t care any more I was so anxious to get down out of there) came leaping and yelling like mountain goats … It was great. I took off my sneakers and poured out a couple of buckets of lava dust and said “Ah Japhy you taught me the final lesson of them all, you can’t fall off a mountain.”

The slightly ironic corollary to this great scene is that in fact you can fall off a mountain. But, well, you probably won't. I think that's what Jack Keroauc was trying to say.

You reach Old Rag's peak early in the circular hike, and then follow the blazes onward for a long and relaxing downward jaunt.

I learned about blazes when I was a kid and joined my father and stepmother and siblings on Appalachian Trail hikes. These blazes constitute their own language, but the funny thing is that even though I like looking at them, I never bothered to learn what the different variations of stripes mean. Sometimes there are two blazes together, which signifies something. Sometimes there's a blaze in the shape of an arrow, or a blaze that isn't blue.

I could easily look up this language's rules, but I never do. I find it more exciting to hike dumbly along, knowing that the meaning of every blaze on every trail is really something more primal and immediate: "You are on a path. You are following something. You are not nowhere".

As I figure out where I'm going next, this is all the direction I want, and all the direction I need.

10

A literary visit to Old Rag in the Shenandoah Mountains.

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Sunday, April 19, 2015 10:18 pm
Old Rag Mountain
Story
Levi Asher

A few days ago I began exploring how writers from Plato to Sebastian Brant to Katherine Anne Porter have written about a "Ship of Fools". This was inspired by my discovery that sixteen different songs with that exact title have been written and performed by major rock, punk, folk and pop artists between 1969 and today, and that several of these songs are remarkably good.

How is it possible that a fairly obscure literary metaphor would inspire so many different songs? What makes the idea of a ship of fools so relevant to modern songwriters, and how do each of their songs imagine the idea? I will examine each song in detail below in search of an answer.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, the notion of a ship of fools can describe several different specific situations. In Plato's original analogy from The Republic, the people on the ship are fools because they have no seamanship skills, and yet are far out at sea in a boat they do not know how to operate. This metaphor corresponds to the situation in several of the songs below.

In Sebastian Brant's 1494 popular satire Ship of Fools, the fools are disreputable and untrustworthy characters, depicted literally as jesters or clowns who represent various influential clerics, judges and rulers of the era. The idea of a ship of fools that symbolizes a debased and corrupt world also corresponds to several of the songs below.

In Katherine Anne Porter's 1962 novel Ship of Fools and the 1965 movie that followed, various characters are unintentionally foolish. They do not take over the ship as in Plato's Republic, nor do they rudely debase the ship as in Brant's satire. Instead, they try their hardest to make good decisions. They are fools in the most existential sense: they try to navigate their lives with intelligence and wisdom, but cannot seem to sail in a straight line. That situation is also captured several of the songs below.

After originally discovering that I owned six songs called "Ship of Fools" by the Doors, Grateful Dead, John Cale, Bob Seger, World Party and Robert Plant, I began searching iTunes for more songs with the same title, and was blown away by the variety I found. I ended up spending ten bucks buying ten more songs, thus creating a playlist that I listened to for several weeks. Remarkably, this playlist sounded great. Indeed, the musical and thematic consistency between the 16 different songs I found called "Ship of Fools" almost indicates some kind of nearly supernatural synchronicity across the deep blue sea of lyrical and musical creativity.

Here are a few notes on each of the sixteen songs. They are listed here in rough order from my least to most favorite. Videos are included for my top five.

16. "Ship of Fools" by Van Der Graaf Generator

"Ship of Fools" by the 1970s prog-rock outfit Van Der Graaf Generator is an instrumental, so it's hard to divine any themes. The tone and tenor of the song morphs from moody to bright to murky, which may describe an experience on a journey with a ship of fools. But it's hard to tell exactly what the title is supposed to indicate, if anything at all.

15. "Ship of Fools" by the Scorpions

The ship of fools
Keeps on rollin' through a deadly storm
It won't take long 'till we collide

The Scorpions of 1980s hair-metal fame are from Germany, so it's too bad they didn't find a way to properly channel the spirit of their countryman Sebastian Brant. I like the Scorpions best songs (like "Rock You Like a Hurricane", which would be an uncomfortable weather situation for a hapless boat). But their "Ship of Fools" comes off a bit limp. The lyrics are trite and unremarkable, and even the band's patented screaming twin-guitar attack fails to save the song.

14. "Ship of Fools" by Soul Asylum

Ship of fools, drunken hearts
Making yet another new start
Ain't it hard to play that part
When you've got a drunken heart

"Ship of Fools" by Soul Asylum adds an interesting twist to the question above: are the fools on our ship stupid, or crazy, or corrupt? In Soul Asylum's song, they are simply drunk, which is actually another reasonable interpretation of the phrase "ship of fools". The proverbial vessel in this song might be a frat bus or a party limo. The passengers claim to be looking for love -- "fool's gold" -- but are unlikely to find it. The lyrical equation is intriguing, but the track's power-punk rhythm could be better, and as one of only two punk songs on this list, Soul Asylum's "Ship of Fools" suffers badly in comparison to the track by Fucked Up (see below).

13. "Ship of Fools" by Sarah Brightman

Sarah Brightman's "Ship of Fools" is about a bittersweet love affair. I don't really go for her brand of sleekly produced pop vocal, but I do appreciate the sincerity in her voice as she yearns:

I'll do anything to get to you
Because we're riding on a ship of fools.

12. "Ship of Fools" by Echo and the Bunnymen

I'm not really sure what to think of "Ship of Fools" by Echo and the Bunnymen, which is entirely concerned with a woman who treats the narrator badly as herald angels beckon in the background with dark foreboding:

All aboard! Ship of fools ...

It's interesting that the narrator of this song, unlike those of most on this list, is not already on a ship of fools, but only hears angels calling him to come aboard. It's unclear what will happen if he does or does not answer their call. Overall, there is something here, but I wish Echo and the Bunnymen had developed the nautical theme more completely. This is a prototypical 80s song (like the superior Erasure track below), but it delivers an unexceptional journey.

11. "Ship of Fools" by Ron Sexsmith

I've never heard of Rox Sexsmith before, though I am pleased to find that he sounds a bit like Ray Davies of the Kinks. It's not clear if his "Ship of Fools" represents a love affair or the whole damned world, but it is clear that he sees no exit ramp on this unsteady vessel:

We are all on the same boat, darling
On the same rough sea
We are all on the same boat, darling
The ship of fools at sea

10. "Ship of Fools" by Harry Manx and Kevin Breit

Harry Manx is apparently the inventor of his own musical instrument, which adds resonating sympathetic strings like those of a sitar to an acoustic guitar. The effect is only subtly audible in this unique folky number, but it does give the musical setting a pleasing kick, and I also like it that this song goes meta with its theme, informing us that the narrator is only singing about a ship of fools because he heard a song on the radio.

Heard a song on the radio, growing dark
About the hard times coming down today
On a Ship of Fools ...

We must wonder, which "Ship of Fools" did he hear on the radio? And does he have a "Ship of Fools" playlist too?

9. "Ship of Fools" by Erasure

"Ship of Fools" by Erasure is the most painful love song on this list, and the best example of the dark synthesizer-driven 1980s musical genre that was once called "mope rock". In this song's tragic story, the fact that we are all stuck on a boat filled with idiots turns out to be the only shred of commonality that two lonely and isolated souls can connect about:

Ooooh, do we not sail on a ship of fools?
Oooooh, why is life so fragile and so cruel?


8. "Ship of Fools" by the Doors

The Doors deliver an apocalyptic "Ship of Fools" in late 1969, following the summer of Woodstock, the Manson murders and Apollo 11. Given Jim Morrison's bent for Jungian symbology, it's not surprising that the Doors were the first rock band (as far as I can find) to record a song called "Ship of Fools". But it is surprising that Morrison equates he proverbial ship with the USA space program, which had just succeeded in its greatest journey before the band recorded the song:

Evil walks on the moon ...

Is the Apollo 11 moonshot the ship of fools? I'm not sure if that's what this song is saying or not. I have huge respect for Jim Morrison and the Doors, and the main reason I don't fully love their "Ship of Fools" is that I sense it as a wasted opportunity. They could have opened it up into a ten-minute epic like "The End" or "When The Music's Over", and this would have given Morrison time to fully explore the literary potential of this song's title. Maybe this would have also allowed the usually brilliant Ray Manzarek and Robby Kreiger to perk up their riffs.

7. "Ship of Fools" by Fucked Up

Fucked Up delivers "Ship of Fools" as a straight punk rave-up, and blow Soul Asylum's besotted "Ship of Fools" out of the water with their Clash/Ramones-driven energy. The lyrics are enigmatic and fascinating, though the actual story about the boat gets lost in all the Rimbaud-esque symbolism:

The speaker and the spoke
The axle and the wheel
The teller and the tale
The flower and the bee
The sword and the steel
The beast and the yoke
The fish and the sea
he prisoner and the jail
Sinking on the ship of fools

6. "Ship of Fools" by Flyleaf

I was not aware of the "Christian band" Flyleaf, but Kristen May's sweet soprano voice is even more pleasing (to my untrained ears) than that of the grand Sarah Brightman. I'm also pleased by the lyrics, which fully develop the nautical theme and don't shy away from biblical connotations:

See them sailing away, singing on a ship of fools
When they tried to build a heaven, they always use the devil’s tools
Adam and Eve, now they’re putting on their clothes
Because they can’t undress the secret to make another garden grow

The following are my five favorite songs called "Ship of Fools".

5. "Ship of Fools" by the Grateful Dead

"Ship of Fools" by the Grateful Dead is a sublime slow ballad, and the lyrics tell a story of anger and defiance. This narrator intends to sink the ship of fools, though he rides on it while plotting his mutiny. I don't know how the song's story ends, but I hope the narrator wins. This is lyricist Robert Hunter at his very best:

Went to see the captain, strangest I could find,
Laid my proposition down, laid it on the line.
I won't slave for beggar's pay, likewise gold and jewels,
But I would slave to learn the way to sink your ship of fools.

I'm a huge Deadhead, though strangely this has never been my very favorite gentle-toned highly lyrical Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter ballad (that would be "Black Peter" or "China Doll"). But this is a well-loved song, and for good reason. The Dead's "Ship of Fools" has been notably recorded by Elvis Costello.

4. "Ship of Fools" by Robert Plant

Like a werewolf who finds himself infected, Robert Plant doesn't know how he wound up on his "Ship of Fools", but he knows he's on the ship and feels very little hope of finding a way to get off.

I built this ship, it is my making
And furthermore my self-control I can't rely on anymore.

This song recalls the original passage in Plato's Republic: the ship is desire, and the storm is the turbulence inside the human mind. Plant calls out meekly to "turn this boat around", but there doesn't seem to be anybody at the captain's wheel.

3. "Ship of Fools" by John Cale

"Ship of Fools" from John Cale's 1974 album Fear is one of the most haunting and beautiful songs on my playlist. I've raved before on Litkicks about John Cale's stunning work with Lou Reed, and "Ship of Fools" brings out the same qualities I've raved about before: that lilting, elegant voice, those chiming clockwork rhythms, the mysterious and complex musical undercurrents.

Cale narrates this song in the voice of a rustic, a dumb provincial traveler. In this song, "fool" refers not to madness or stupidity but just to a lack of brightness, an emptiness of the spirit. All the passengers on this gloomy boat seem to be in dire need of some kind of spiritual awakening. The places and names in the song hint at some kind of spaghetti Western locale, but Dracula shows up in Memphis, and the overalltone of the song appears medieval, as if inspired directly by Sebastian Brant's 1494 book of verse.

2. "Ship of Fools" by World Party

"Ship of Fools" by World Party was a big hit on MTV and FM radio in 1987. I liked the song then and I like it now. The catchy lyrics always struck me as a protest against the prevailing conservatism of President Ronald Reagan's America and Margaret Thatcher's Great Britain -- a howl of rage against policies that were pitting wealthy against poor and increasing the powers of corporations against the rights of individuals:

Avarice and greed are gonna
drive you over the endless sea
They will leave you drifting in the shallows
or drowning in the oceans of history
Traveling the world
you're in search of no good
but I'm sure you'll build your Sodom
like you knew you would
Using all the good people
for your galley slaves
as you're little boat struggles
through the warning waves

Unlike John Cale's meek journeyman, who only leaves his gloomy ship to stumble ashore and find something to eat, the narrator of World Party's "Ship of Fools" hates being stuck on an infernal vessel bound for oblivion, and begs to be released. "Save me!" the singer yells. World Party's "Ship of Fools" seems most likely to have been inspired by the Heironymous Bosch painting on the top of this page.

1. "Ship of Fools" by Bob Seger

After listening for several weeks to 16 different songs called "Ship of Fools", it came time to choose my favorite song on the list. The decision I arrived at surprised me, because I've never been a huge Bob Seger fan. But I can't deny that this was the song that gave me the most pleasure whenever it came on.

Bob Seger's "Ship of Fools" is a deceptively simple guitar-strummin' ballad that appeared on Seger's breakthrough 1976 album "Night Moves". It features an achingly gorgeous vocal line sung by Seger with suave sensitivity and real conviction, especially as the story ends:

I alone ... survived the sinking.

This calls to mind Ishmael at the end of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which is not a bad connotation for a song called "Ship of Fools". It's interesting that Bob Seger's "Ship of Fools" is one of very few on this playlist in which the ship of fools actually goes down. (Another is the Grateful Dead's, and in several songs it's not clear what the hell is happening to the ship. Interestingly, the Ship of Fools does not sink in the books by Sebastian Brant or Katharine Anne Porter.)

Despite the Melville shout-out, Bob Seger clearly seems to have based his "Ship of Fools" on the 1965 movie. He indicates this with his opening line:

Tell me quick, said old McFee
What's this all have to do with me?

But i's funny that he hands this line to a person named McFee, since the character who speaks the words in the movie is Carl Glocken. It's a well-chosen line, though, since Glocken stands as a representative narrator -- an eternal passenger, ironic and philosophical -- for every possible idea of a ship of fools.

Glocken in Katharine Anne Porter's novel Ship of Fools is a small person with no wife or children or career, apparently supported by a wealthy family somewhere on dry land. He spends his lonely life going back and forth over the Atlantic ocean on cruise ships. It's how he finds an endless stream of new superficial friends with which to strike up fascinating conversations. Glocken has developed a tough skin and a keen sense of sarcasm after many voyages.

Glocken is often insulted for being small, and is always banished to the "misfits" table in the cruise ship dining room. In one of the movie's climactic scenes, a dignified German Jew finds himself banished from the Captain's table to the "misfits" table after a Nazi bigwig complains. All the misfits at this table eventually become friends with Glocken, who observes all their dramas and is the conscience of the film.

Michael Dunn was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Glocken, the character who inspired Bob Seger's song. This seems suitable, since Glocken's ironic and dread-filled attitude deftly ties Katherine Anne Porter's "Ship of Fools" back to Sebastian Brant's "Ship of Fools", and Plato's, especially when he faces the camera to speak to all of us. "What's this all got to do with me?" Glocken asks.

Indeed, what? Well, don't you know ... we're all stuck together on this ship of fools.

5

The image of the "Ship of Fools" has appeared in several books, a movie, and sixteen songs by artists like the Doors, Grateful Dead, John Cale, Robert Plant, Soul Asylum, Sarah Brightman, Bob Seger, the Scorpions, Echo and the Bunnymen ...

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Sunday, March 29, 2015 09:09 am
A playlist of 16 different songs titled "Ship of Fools"
Story
Levi Asher

"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.

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"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.

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

GET RID OF MEANING. YOUR MIND IS A NIGHTMARE THAT HAS BEEN EATING YOU: NOW EAT YOUR MIND.

I saw Kathy Acker's name fly by in a tweet yesterday. Her name carries power for those who remember it. Alternative and transgressive literature blossoms in today's Internet-powered cultural scene, but there was a time (back when Ronald Reagan was President and a lot of things were lamer than they are today) when Kathy Acker was the only young punk writer in the world with any amount of fame. That was a lonely era for a serious indie voice of the streets, but Kathy Acker played her role with style and class.

She died of cancer in 1997, when she was only 50 years old and had a lot more writing to do. Looking back at her body of work today, it seems clear that empowerment was always her mission. Her literary role models were men -- William S. Burroughs, Charles Olsen, Jerome Rothenberg -- but her influence seems to be most strongly felt among woman writers who heard her call for empowerment via unapologetic self-expression. Her influence can be traced through many voices that have dared to be brash over the years, from Patti Smith, Mary Gaitskill, Tama Janowitz and Maggie Estep to JT Leroy, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Porochista Khakpour, Paula Bomer. Every one of these controversial writers must have had to dig deep within to find the confidence to write without fear. They may not have followed Kathy Acker's direction, but they did walk in her trail.

Acker may be best remembered for writing very frankly about painful topics like child rape and prostitution. But she was also a blazingly original theorist with a constant urge to liberate classic fiction/poetry texts from any sense of ownership, property or meaning. She called herself a "pirate" and freely spliced together texts belonging to other writers, acting decisively upon the impulse that would eventually find expression in David Shields' Reality Hunger. One example of a literary cut-up that did not get Kathy Acker into trouble was her novel Don Quixote, in which a terrified young woman lying on a bed in an abortion clinic transforms herself into the knight Don Quixote, and eventually selects a dog as her Sancho Panza. This book didn't get Kathy Acker into trouble because Miguel de Cervantes was long dead.

But she did get in trouble when she cut up a comically commercial sex scene from a Harold Robbins bestselling potboiler into her own transgressive novel, and her account of the agony she went through when Harold Robbins demanded an apology (and her own publisher refused to stand behind her) stands today as a vivid, pained document of the agony of a struggling writer drowning in a world of misunderstanding. This account, titled Dead Doll Humility, may be the most accessible thing she ever wrote. If somebody wants to read one thing by Kathy Acker, this piece would be a good choice. It begins in screaming caps:

IN ANY SOCIETY BASED ON CLASS, HUMILIATION IS A POLITICAL REALITY. HUMILIATION IS ONE METHOD BY WHICH POLITICAL POWER IS TRANSFORMED INTO SOCIAL OR PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS. THE PERSONAL INTERIORIZATION OF THE PRACTICE OF HUMILIATION IS CALLED 'HUMILITY'.

CAPITOL IS AN ARTIST WHO MAKES DOLLS. MAKES, DAMAGES, TRANSFORMS, SMASHES. ONE OF HER DOLLS IS A WRITER DOLL. THE WRITER DOLL ISN'T VERY LARGE AND IS ALL HAIR, HORSE MANE HAIR, RAT FUR, DIRTY HUMAN HAIR, PUSSY.

As the piece progresses, the author's voice becomes tentative and weak following the repeated application of public disapproval and apathy. Dead Doll Humility presents the losing struggle of a writer clinging desperately to the right to write, against all opposition:

Want to play. Be left alone to play. Want to be a sailor who journeys at every edge and even into the unknown. See strange sights, see. If I can't keep on seeing wonders, I'm in prison. Claustrophobia's sister to my worst nightmare: lobotomy, the total loss of perceptual power, of seeing new. If had to force language to be uni-directional, I'd be helping my own prison to be constructed.

There are enough prisons outside, outside language.

The Los Angeles Times article by Carolyn Kellogg that caused Kathy Acker's name to fly happily before my eyes yesterday offers some good news: a new book of letters between Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark called I'm Very into You: Correspondence 1995--1996 has just been published by Semiotext(e), which describes the correspondence as "a Plato's Symposium for the twenty-first century, but written for queers, transsexuals, nerds, and book geeks".

A Plato's Symposium for the twenty-first century is a tall order. But there's no doubt that our current epoch can use more Kathy Acker.

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Kathy Acker's "Dead Doll Humility" presents the struggle of a writer to persevere against all opposition.

view /KathyAcker
Tuesday, February 24, 2015 09:02 am
Kathy Acker, Writer
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.

1

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

"I'll meet you under the words". There's a large building in Cardiff, Wales with a poem embedded directly into its front wall. The poem is written half in Welsh and half in English by Gwyneth Lewis, who is part of a vibrant Welsh-speaking renaissance that draws in families, musicians, writers, artists, hipsters and academics all across this ancient land. Welsh began to disappear centuries ago when Wales became part of England, but some have managed to generate a significant new sense of community by striving to keep the language alive. When these folks gather for festivals, dances, hip-hop beatbox sessions and poetry slams, they really are meeting under words.

Gwyneth Lewis is profiled in Language Matters, a delightful and captivating two-hour documentary currently running on PBS. The documentary is directed by David Grubin and hosted by poetry raconteur Bob Holman, who visits three locations around the world where great languages are in danger of disappearing: northern Australia, Wales and Hawaii. The films make the case that irreplaceable cultural knowledge is entwined into these regional languages, and that every time a regional language is lost, a way of thinking is lost as well.

The first journey in Language Matters is the most stirring. On the northern tip of Australia, Aboriginal families live peacefully and intermingle freely in small neighborly clusters-- and yet, entire vast different languages are spoken within these family groups. Nobody in this area is monolingual; to speak each of your neighbors' languages is a sign of respect, even though languages like Kunwinjku and Amurdak may be as different from each other as, say, English and Polish.

Some of these distinct languages are only kept alive by individual family networks or, in one extreme case, by a single person. Language Matters focuses on an elderly man who is the last person on earth to speak the language he grew up with. The kind of loneliness he must feel is barely visible in his dignified face, as he calmly delivers halting explanations of living words that will soon be lost.

It's because a language is more than words that no academic transcription can ever capture the essence of a language that was once alive. In this documentary's last segment in Hawaii, poet W. S. Merwin salutes the elusiveness of language, quoting a Hawaiian verse that can be translated, but not translated well, because the Hawaiian rhythms and sounds are part of the verse's meaning. In Hawaii, as in Wales, schools have been built by tuned-in educators and linguists and caring community members to keep their cherished ancestral languages alive. We visit children in schools where they are instructed to only speak Welsh or Hawaiian.

Of course, the fact that these children are immersed in Welsh or Hawaiian at school does not mean they will not learn other languages too. But there is clearly a heavy cultural significance here; to embrace Welsh or Hawaiian is an act of protest against the conformism of an English-speaking planet. The significance feels more acute in northern Australia, where the critical mass to keep dying languages alive does not exist.

Language Matters features stunning dance sequences and beautiful nature photography along with narration and interviews by Bob Holman, who turns out to be very good at this kind of thing. I've known Bob Holman for years via his Bowery Poetry Club, and we published a piece he wrote about slam poetry attitudes called "15 Rules For Hecklers" in 2010. Language Matters is the kind of project Bob Holman is born to do, and if we're lucky he'll do more and more.

There are, after all, so many more endangered languages around the world. I remember visiting my grandmother and her sister in Brooklyn and being amazed by the Yiddish newspapers they read, printed in blocky Hebrew letters completely incomprehensible to me. I was ignorant not only of the language my grandmother spoke, but even of her alphabet.

It occurs to me now that my grandmother was actually making a choice in continuing to read Yiddish while living in Brooklyn for over 70 years. Of course she was perfectly fluent in English, but Yiddish gave her and her sister a connection to the world they wanted to be living in. I never asked her what this language meant to her, and now I wish I had.

Language Matters appears to be a television documentary about remote cultures and faraway peoples. It turns out to be a show about us all.

6

A new documentary showing on PBS explains the deep cultural significance of regional languages, many of which are destined for extinction.

view /LanguageMatters
Monday, January 26, 2015 09:22 pm
A Welsh poem embedded upon a building.
Story
Levi Asher

I used to read short stories all the time. At one point, I was more into short stories than novels.

Well, why not? This was back when Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Tama Janowitz, Lorrie Moore, John Updike, Cynthia Ozick, Alice Munro and William Trevor were all putting out stuff on a regular basis. It sure did seem like a golden age.

I never put much stock in golden ages, though. I'm sure there are just as many good short story writers out there today as there were in the Breakfast Club years. But I'm not always sure who these short story writers are. So, I made it a point to read three recent volumes by three acclaimed short story writers recently. I must have chosen well, because I struck gold of some sort with all three.

Flings by Justin Taylor

I almost had a bad experience with Flings by Justin Taylor. This is probably because I didn't begin on the first page, but instead skipped ahead to the one story named after a Phish song. This turned out to be one of the only stories in the book I didn't like.

Justin Taylor is the kind of hip young over-educated brooklyn writer I might never have noticed if he didn't have one quirk that caught my attention: his substantial knowledge of the Grateful Dead and Phish. Stereotypes about batik-wearing aisle dancers aside (and really, these stereotypes have become extremely stale), there is a lot of fresh energy and intellectual depth in our long-running jamband subcultures, and it's about time a hip young over-educated brooklyn writer decided to turn these subcultures and their fringe members into material for fiction.

I thought Justin Taylor really nailed the aching sweetness of modern-day hippiedom with his clever novel The Gospel of Anarchy, which is about a houseful of collegiate Florida neo-Situationists who conjure up a new religion from the filth of their communal kitchen. I remembered this book for its warm characters, but I was left cold by the selfish and thick-headed Dad who takes his gloomy children to a Phish concert in "Mike's Song", the first story I read in Flings. Perhaps I came to this story with unfair expectations, but I can't help hoping that a story about a Phish concert will capture some of the joyousness of the actual event. I didn't get the point of this story, and I couldn't help wishing Taylor had written with the mood of the story's setting instead of against it.

I then had a rough time with the opening story of Flings, which is also the title story of the collection. I found myself wearied by the endless stream of jumbled hapless college graduates who work for non-profits and try heroin and gossip about each other. Finishing the story, I had no idea what I was supposed to feel. I later read the acknowledgements at the end of the book:

"Flings" is, among other things, in loose homage to Virginia Woolf's 'The Waves'

To which I thought: thanks a lot, Justin, but you could have at least told me about the required reading in advance. All would be forgiven, of course, if the story worked on its own, but I don't think it does.

Fortunately, Flings immediately got better for me once I proceeded to the next story, Sungold, a playful romp that takes place in a college-town vegan pizza chain store, featuring a few of the wan anarchists and naive idealists Taylor draws so well. Then I loved Poets, maybe the best story in this book, which follows two egotistical young creative writing program junkies from their sophomoric beginnings to the eventual ravages of middle age, literary obscurity and romantic disconnection.

Even if it doesn't manage to find joy at a Phish concert, Justin Taylor's Flings is a delightful postmodernist grab bag, an accessible series of experiments in irony and attitude. The collection's title describes the book well: some of these flings don't fly, but that's the nature of a fling.

Inside Madeleine by Paula Bomer

If Justin Taylor's collection feels like a grab bag, Paula Bomer's Inside Madeleine feels like a tunnel, and it takes only a few words before we realize how fully we have entered it. Here's the first paragraph of her first story, "Eye Socket Girls":

I don't want to jump out any window. I just want to breathe something that makes me feel like living. They pump the air in here out of machines. It stinks like Play-Doh. Open a window, please -- I won't jump -- I'm not a suicide patient. I just don't eat.

This eye-socket girl is hospitalized for anorexia bulimia, and her crisp, efficient narrative leaves us with the chilling realization that she has no intention at all of allowing herself to be cured.

An odd and Poe-esque physical or sexual dread is a lurking note in many of Paula Bomer's carefully composed short stories, which tend to cohere to a single structural backbone: we meet a person whose inner thoughts drive her crazy, and we follow these thoughts towards their inevitable collisions.

Like a recurring bad dream, this pattern was also evident in Paula Bomer's first story collection Baby, in which the protagonist tended to be a financially comfortable New York City socialite in a very troubled marriage. Inside Madeleine mostly takes us back to the growing-up years, as if a prequel to Baby. The intensity of Bomer's steady voice remains; in simple words and sentences, devoid of pop-culture distractions or historical events or grand intentions, Paula Bomer takes us into a dark interior space and asks us to look around.

What demons, exactly, do we find? Every reader may project his or her own concerns into these Rorschach diagrams, but when I analyze these confused characters I see a looming self-hatred. In "Outsiders", a college student with plenty to be proud of can only fixate on the superficial and trivial flaws that alienate her from her peers. In "Cleveland Circle House", a psychology student gets a job in a halfway house packed with rowdy mentally ill drifters, and then begins battling her secret sense that she is one of them.

In "Reading to the Blind Girl", yet another college student is so overpowered by the domineering personalities that bluster around her that she ends up guiltily avoiding the blind girl she has been reading lessons to, banking on the fact that the blind girl cannot see her walk by. But this is a Paula Bomer story, which means that even this blind girl somehow seems to catch the guilty act.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

I'm not going to lie; I didn't enjoy a couple of the stories in Hilary Mantel's new volume at all.

There's a story called "Comma" about a kid who goes to grandma's and sees a lady whose baby has birth defects and is wrapped up like a comma:

Now the dark flowers on her frock had blown their petals and bled out into the night. She ran the few steps toward the wheeled chair, paused for a split second, her hand fluttering over the comma's head; then she flicked her head back to the house and bawled, her voice harsh, "Fetch a torch!" That harshness shocked me, from a throat I had thought would coo like a dove, like a pigeon; but then she turned again, and the last thing I saw before we ran was how she bent over the comma, and wrapped the shawl, so tender, about the lamenting skull.

I don't know. I guess this is the kind of writing that wins awards, but it comes across a bit plummy to me, and I certainly wouldn't want to read an entire book in this Joycean voice (okay, if the book is called Dubliners I would, but it's not my favorite kind of voice).

There are a few stories in this volume that I didn't think amounted to time well spent, but then there were a few that scored, like the opening piece "Sorry To Disturb". In this story, which appears to be autobiographical, the wife of a Canadian engineer who is stationed in Saudi Arabia tries to make friends with another foreigner, a Pakistani.

This dignified housewife's effort is not a success, and it's clear that Hilary Mantel is a writer who likes to see fault lines move, who likes the crash of cataclysmic change. I really loved the title story of this collection, "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher", which offers an alternate reality in which the rigidly Conservative British Prime Minister is targeted by an assassin. We see it all close up, very close, though the occasion is entirely accidental.

Hilary Mantel's voice is cool and elegant here, and with this comic material her command of the art of fast fiction can be clearly seen. Even when her stories don't move me -- and about half of them don't -- I am impressed by the authority and intellectual confidence behind her literary voice.

In the same way, I'm impressed by Paula Bomer's control and consistency, and by Justin Taylor's puckish agility. Maybe this is still a golden age for short stories after all.

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New short story collections by Justin Taylor, Paula Bomer and Hilary Mantel

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Monday, November 17, 2014 03:08 pm
New short story collections by Justin Taylor, Paula Bomer and Hilary Mantel
Story
Levi Asher

It’s easy to get angry when listening to Sam Harris, a stubborn young philosopher who recently made headlines for joining Bill Maher to condemn the entire religion of Islam on TV (Ben Affleck took the smarter side in this debate). Sam Harris is a pop-culture philosopher with a message of urgent, fervent atheism -- though he has so little respect for religion that he doesn’t even prefer to define himself by this negative belief (there is no word, he points out, for people who don’t believe in Greek myths or in astrology, so we shouldn’t need a word for those who don’t believe in Christianity, Islam or Hinduism either).

I find Sam Harris writings and statements about religion dull and unperceptive. Part of the problem is that he's an overconfident philosopher, heavily armed with a degree in neuroscience from the University of California at Los Angeles. He's so sure of his atheism (he does not want to call it atheism, but I still may do so) that he fails to realize his rote paragraphs have failed to win us over.

Over and over, he lays out a scientific or semantic principle and concludes that he has proven some point. He believes that abstract concepts can be clearly defined and that arguments can be won by declaring logical truths, which is to say that he lives in a world before Nietzsche, before Wittgenstein, before Derrida. This gives him a confidence in his conclusions that is awkward for a more existential philosopher to behold.

However, Sam Harris should not be written off as a hack. He is an energetic philosopher who has managed to establish himself as a voice for other fervent atheists, many of whom congregate at his admirably useful website Project Reason. He has a long career ahead of him, and he has even shown significant signs of improvement -- when he stays off the topic of Islam and away from television talk shows.

It's in his strident books (and television appearances) about religion that Sam Harris is at his worst. Elsewhere, he can be surprisingly good. He's most captivating when using his books to explore territory that is new to him. When he steps outside his intellectual comfort zone, uncertainty and curiosity soften Sam Harris's obnoxious voice, and he becomes at times an original and sensitive thinker.

Harris’s new book is called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, and Harris means something specific by this. He describes a few situations where he or others have felt a sensation of transcendence of the individual self, a feeling that they define as "spirituality". Sam Harris explores the idea that this type of "spirituality" may be scientifically significant. The reason we feel this transcendence, Sam Harris suggests, may be that the individual human self is not actually a scientific thing. The transcendence may actually be real.

The idea that religion's hidden value lies in its emphasis of the scientifically valid phenomenon of the transcendence of the self is the primary message of Waking Up. It's an exciting idea, good enough to make this an interesting and worthwhile book.

Harris acknowledges his debt for this idea to an older contemporary philosopher, Derek Parfit, who has used various explanations, proofs and illustrations to demonstrate that the individual self is not a continuous thing, though it appears to be. The deconstruction of the sense of the individual self is a topic we have explored often ourselves here on Litkicks, particularly in our critique of the philosophy of selfishness that is popular with followers of Ayn Rand.

The highly limited ethical philosophy of Ayn Rand depends completely on a solid and sturdy definition of the self, and it is by pointing out the weakness of this foundation that he have proven Ayn Rand's bold ethical philosophy to be unpersuasive. We've also gone on to explore other considerations about the fragmentary nature of human identity in blog posts with titles like The Elusive Self, The Collective Self, The Shock of the Self, The Ayn Rand Principle and the Two Senses of Self, and Rebooting the Argument Against Egoism.

The idea that the self is an illusion — that we only think we perceive a single continuous “I” that persists through our lives — provides Sam Harris with a single example of a positive aspect to religion. Unfortunately, Harris finds himself so amazed at his own embrace of this one quasi-religious concept that he then devotes large portions of Waking Up to his usual tired religion-bashing, as if to prove to himself and his readers that he hasn't changed too much. Waking Up would have been a better book if he'd left these parts out.

There is a larger deficiency in Sam Harris's model of the self, which is possibly a result of the Derek Parfit idea of the fragmented self being still new to him. While he is able to see that the individual self is a fluid thing, he fails to see the sociological perspective on this, which is that the boundaries of the self does not always have to equate to the boundaries of a single individual human being. The boundaries can sometimes expand to include more than one person at a time.

In everyday life, we often exist within aggregate selves, sharing a community consciousness within working units that seem to operate as group selves, and that even regard themselves in this way. Harris gets far enough to realize that we are not always conscious of ourselves as individuals, but he has not yet made the leap to realize that we are sometimes self-conscious within larger selves which we share with our loved ones and neighbors. This is indeed a fuller understanding of the religious sense of self, and many perplexing facts of our lives and our shared history can be coherently explained once this understanding is gained.

It's also a more realistic understanding of the way we exist in everyday life. Many parents, for instance, see their children standing next to them when they reflect upon themselves. (We see this in action when a parent includes his or her children in his or her Facebook photo.) A team or business or a government or army also takes on the functional characteristics of a cooperative or corporate self; without doing so, it would barely be able to operate as a unit. These are vital points that Sam Harris and others who contemplate the fragmentary nature of the self may not have considered yet, and might appreciate as significant.

These points are especially valuable when examining conflicts between different ethnic, religious or national groups. These conflicts are the most dramatic (and often most tragic) manifestations of group psychology -- and they can never be understood without the use of group psychology. The idea that religion is bad because religion causes war is the most popular dumb idea that results from the failure to understand group psychology.

Sam Harris almost understands something great when he declares that consciousness is fragmentary and that the self is an illusion. He would be closer to grasping the real ethical and existential crisis of human life if he declared that consciousness is fragmentary and that the self is elusive.

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Sam Harris almost understands something great when he declares that consciousness is fragmentary and that the self is an illusion. He would be closer if he declared that consciousness is fragmentary and that the self is elusive.

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Saturday, October 25, 2014 06:57 pm
Waking Up by Sam Harris
Story
Levi Asher

It's because words are such effective tools of communication that we sometimes fail to realize how often we communicate without them. A conversation is sometimes a physical exchange. These conversations carry meaning that can only exist in the physical realm.

We signify to each other with words, with gestures, with emotional expressions. We also signify with commitments, with actions, and when this occurs (as it constantly does in our everyday lives) we are able to see that logical meaning is itself a physical thing. We can't say what we want to say without putting our bodies into it.

For example: my wife and I go to a wedding of a friend of hers who we haven't seen in a while. We both like the bride and groom a lot, and we used to enjoy hanging out with them, but tonight we barely get to talk to the marrying couple because they are so busy running around being the bride and groom. Still, we are glad we came to the wedding, because we are able to express something to the couple by being there. They know that we are there because we want to celebrate their marriage, and this recognition (which might not take place till weeks later when they see their wedding photos) amounts to a happy conversation that could not have been carried out if we were not there. We could have sent a card, and the card could have had many more words on it than we had a chance to speak. But the card would have expressed not more meaning but less than we expressed by being there.

A game of poker provides another example of a form of communication that requires physical investment. This is the most basic rule of poker: your money does the talking. Let's say you're holding a pair of kings before the flop and somebody bets $20 and two others call. You decide that you'd like to take down the pot before the flop with an all-in bet, since you're pretty sure your kings have everyone beat right now, even though they might not hold up at the river. So you go all-in. By shoving your chips you are communicating loudly and clearly.

But you could not possibly have communicated what you just communicated without committing all your chips. It's important to note that, when the others fold (as you hope they will), they are not communicating back. When each player folds, that player is ending their part of the conversation. When they all fold, this conversation is over. The next conversation begins when the next hand is dealt.

So we sometimes communicate our friendship with our bodies, and we sometimes communicate our self-confidence with our money. But here's a darker aspect to the same idea, which occurred to me during the past week as I watched the depressing news from Israel and Palestine. Hamas is firing rockets at Israel from the Gaza Strip, and Israel is firing bigger weapons back. It's a horrible situation all around, and everybody is asking "why can't they just stop?"

The sad answer is, they can't stop because they are in the middle of a conversation that both sides feel compelled to have. By firing rockets at Israel, Hamas is saying "we don't accept Israel's right to exist, and we refuse to back down even though we lack enough military strength to defeat them in open battle." Once we look closely at Hamas's actions, it becomes clear that the only possible purpose of their rocket attacks is to make this statement. There is no strategic purpose; they are simply gesturing. Just as a poker player can't say "I have a monster hand here, you better all fold" without backing it up with a bet, Hamas believe that they can't say "we don't accept Israel's right to exist" without backing it up with armed attacks.

Of course, Israel is also using weapons as communication when it returns the attacks with much greater force. There's been a whole lot of communication going on between Hamas and Israel in the past few days.

But here's the terrible irony of the situation: Israel and Hamas refuse to talk to each other. Hamas won't talk to Israel because doing so would seem to amount to a recognition of Israel's right to exist. Israel won't talk to Hamas because it won't negotiate with terrorists. So both countries are pretending not to talk to each other. All the while, they're communicating back and forth with weapons that have no purpose other than signification.

I recently had a long argument with a few friends about whether or not Israel should agree to begin peace talks with Hamas. These pro-Israeli friends of mine seem to believe that that Israel can achieve something greater by refusing to talk with Hamas, though I can't imagine how they think this strategy can possibly succeed.

I have other friends who generally advocate the pro-Palestinian side, and similarly believe that Hamas should not agree to peace talks. It's also impossible for me to understand how they think this strategy will succeed.

I think we're all asking the wrong questions. Both Israel and Hamas are pretending to refuse to talk to each other, while in fact they're communicating in the worst possible way. Maybe it will help to acknowledge that what needs to be expressed simply needs to be expressed. If the words can't be found, the physical actions will carry the meaning instead. Our challenge is to find the words.

This is why I will always advocate for peace talks between any enemies, no matter how much bitter hatred exists between them. This conversation is already taking place, because war is a form of language. If we refuse to allow the necessary communications to be expressed in words, they will be expressed with weapons.

We should never doubt that peace talks can be crucially important, even when they appear likely to be hopeless. It doesn't matter if we have no hope; we need to have the peace talks anyway. Like a poker player who decides to fold a hand, what we need is not the beginning of a good conversation. What we desparately need is the end of a bad conversation that has already been going on way too long.

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We can't say what we want to say without putting our bodies into it. This explains a lot about why wars are so hard to end.

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Friday, July 18, 2014 04:47 pm
Rocket launchers form a complete sentence.
Story
Levi Asher