<= 2003.01

2003.03 =>

[FEBRUARY 2003.]


Chapter Eight was supposed to be finished by the end of February, but no: Chapter Eight is the beast that will not die. Must finish—must finish soon. These months are spiraling away, and I don't want this economy, and it doesn't want me.

Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald. What a strange book this was. The English rendering of the prose is pitch-perfect, retaining the long tidal rhythms of German sentences, and the entire novel has a similar flow as it crests over three hundred pages without a single chapter break or even a white space, excepting the photographs. It's very European: heavy on memory and meditation, long musings on the philosophy of architecture, that sort of thing. You can feel the menace rising from the beginning, and while the story does eventually deliver what it promises, the book is never driven by events. It's all thoughts and impressions. I enjoyed it; I admire it; I would recommend it to others; but I didn't love it quite as much as all the rhapsodizing critics did. It's a question of taste, I think: how much reserve can you take in a narrator?


while elsewhere occupied

At the iowablog, Manan posts Zadie Smith's response to the drums of war.

Here are new pictures, including yet more from the New Year's party that will not die; these last were lurking on Peyton's hard drive.

The Advocate (Vu, Josh K.)
Anticipation (Eric, Paul)
Bottom the Weaver (Julia, Marlowe)
A Confederacy of Dunces of One (Marlowe)
The Crazy Eye (Paul, Joe, Jake, Jen)
The Defilement (Stewart, Lauren, Marlowe)
The Fourth Estate (Julia)
The Furies (Cindy, Amy, Peyton)
The Good Life (1) (Paul, Marlowe)
The Good Life (2) (Paul, Joe)
In Line For Grace (Peyton, Lauren, Amy, Jen)
Morning After (Marlowe, Stewart, Paul, Julia)
Patron Saint of Renovation (Peyton)
Philip Drunk, Philip Sober (Julia, Stewart)
The Process of Composition (Peyton)
Snow Queen (Paul)
Toucantopia (Peyton)
Vigil (Nik, Anastasia)
A Well Lighted Room (Paul, Peyton)


that's good; "mobled queen" is good

Bulgaria, our new best friend.

Sketchy facts about Bulgaria rattle around: It has a town called Plovdiv; it wants to become big in the skiing industry; its secret service stabbed an exiled dissident writer in London with a poison-tipped umbrella—a ricin-tipped umbrella, in fact; its weight-lifting team was expelled from the Olympics in a drug scandal in 2000; it sent agents to kill the pope.

An insane Bulgarian lived down my hall freshman year in college. He was enormous and rowed on the crew team, which involved getting up in the dark of winter at 5 a.m. every day; his father was a physicist at Stanford's linear accelerator who had repeatedly set his bed on fire by falling asleep while smoking; he desperately wanted a girlfriend but didn't know how to go about it; he loved Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G.; he slept on the lower bunk of his bed behind a sort of cave wall constructed from towels, in order to keep out the sounds of parties, raucous freshman that we were; and one night he came tearing down the hall after me because I was being too loud outside his room and bellowed at me for a solid five minutes before retreating back to his lair. The odd thing was that he apologized repeatedly the next day, even though I was patently the asshole in that case.

The shift among the Arab ruling and intellectual classes who identified with the West is a telling barometer in the Arab world. Anger at the United States appears greater than at any time since the 1967 Middle East war, greater even than during the headiest days of the 1950s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser ruled Egypt and made anti-imperialism a staple of his still-celebrated speeches. The fate of Iraqis and, to a greater degree, that of Palestinians have become pressing domestic issues.

The broad anger is evident in many ways: attacks on Americans and other Westerners in the Persian Gulf region, chants at protests that denounce "American terrorism" in the same breath as "Israeli aggression," and ongoing efforts to boycott McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Pizza Hut and other U.S. products. There are also more subtle signs. Well-to-do Jordanians are said to spurn invitations to dinners attended by Americans. Cairo taxi drivers occasionally decline to pick up foreigners in expatriate enclaves. In a culture that celebrates a tradition of hospitality, some even refuse to offer the almost requisite coffee or tea to an American visitor.

(To whoever wrote in asking about the authorship of "Journey of the Magi": yes, absence of quote box means it's original.)


sailing the sea of snot

I don't understand how my body manages to produce the stuff in such quantity. I've blown out half my weight by now. Sorry, that's gross.

Sleep is the new sex.


the pilgrim's complaint

While sick, every paragraph I write seems to demand an hour of napping in return. Yesterday it was two paragraphs followed by a two-hour nap. If I try to write more today, the consequences could be dire.

It's probably for the best that my poor annotator of Pnin didn't get as far as Chapter Six, where Nabokov smirks:

Again in the margins of library books earnest freshmen inscribed such helpful glosses as "Description of nature," or "Irony"; and in a pretty edition of Mallarmé's poems an especially able scholiast had already underlined in violet ink the difficult word oiseaux and scrawled above it "birds."

Overall it's one of his dreamier works, with multiple shades of half-reality gently layered atop one another; it seems like exactly the thing he would want to write after Lolita, which for him is a shockingly straightforward book, at least on the basic level of plot. I am reading Austerlitz now, and probably would have finished it last night but my tooth started hurting. Soon, soon.


party trick

Journey of the Magi

The rationale behind the trip was flawed.
We were such misfits, we could barely speak
to one another. We chewed on sand. And God
had not come through the radio in weeks.
Our atlas claimed that past the shimmering spine
of the horizon, where the weeping sun
shied from the rock's embrace, we'd find a sign
indicating shade and water. But there was none,
only a bird. A bird could mean anything.
That night I was the first to see the wolves,
or wolf-like creatures: furtive dark machines
with too many limbs and eyes. There was our proof:
the world was changing. We must change, or die.
And then the screaming star consumed the sky.


he to hecuba

It's discouraging, at the very point when you are trying finally to be comfortable in your own body, to have that body laid low by a virus. Too much time to lie in bed and think about the transient nature of happiness, and such.

What is it men in women do require
The lineaments of Gratified Desire

What is it women in men do require
The lineaments of Gratified Desire

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
  And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
  Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
  Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
    Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
  Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
    And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

—O, damn you and your Paris fads, Buck Mulligan said. I want Sandycove milk.


v. the wrathful & sullen

Sick, bad sore throat. Ran across this image last night and have not been able to shake it.

Girlfriend Stops Reading David Foster Wallace Breakup Letter at Page 20.


crab is king

I don't remember where I bought the used copy of Pnin I am now reading, but of course I neglected to see that someone had scribbled all over it. The offender's name is C.A. Hamilton, and his/her comments range from the pedantic and obvious ("first mention of narrator," "2nd mention of narrator," "meeting with ex-wife parallels meeting with squirrel, therefore wife = squirrel") to the pedantic and cryptic (many passages marked with the initials "P" and "A," or both) to the completely cryptic (Cyrillic alphabet, presumably Russian) to visceral reactions to the text ("oww," "oooww," "bitch") to the outright confessional ("somehow—oww—I am beginning to enjoy reading again," "damn scares and damn knowing how damn behind I am... knowing I can't slip up at all anymore... so much to do... to figure out... it requires focus... sitting still... desire... I'll have none of it [ellipses Hamilton's.]"). Halfway through the book the comments abruptly cease, as if the poor neurotic couldn't take it any more and had to cart Nabokov off to the used bookstore. Odds are 5 to 2 that I bought it in Iowa and the previous owner was a Workshopper, probably a poet.


une semaine de la neige

Iowa was good to me. I have not been so happy in months. In the Cedar Rapids airport, at the little concession café where I had coffee and a bagel before braving the plane, they were selling "Barns of Iowa" posters, so of course I got one. Twenty glorious barns. They'll go next to the piano.

There was going to be a Valentine's Day party at the farmhouse (note: I don't know who that guy is or why he has farmhouse photos), but instead there was a blizzard. We sat, glad to be indoors by the radiator, and watched snow fall through the window. The flakes briefly glowed orange as they fell past the exterior light of the Lutheran church across the alley. Dinner was bits of cheese. The next day half a foot of snow was on the ground and we put on our coats and trudged through the white to the Hamburg Inn, where we ate French toast and leafed through sunny, misty, very green photos of Guatemala in a travel book.

For several reasons time seemed to stop while I was there; it felt as though I had never left the city. The little grid of streets was unchanged, the map of reference points by which we negotiated our small journeys (bookstore, restaurant, HandiMart) intact. Now and again I complain about having an itinerant existence, but there is something to be said for collecting cities; living here and there, you compile a little atlas of mental maps recording not just location and distance but the quality of light in various seasons, colors and smells, the vaporous imprint of happy times. The only difference was that I would constantly pass buildings where friends had lived and half-turn with the impulse to visit before remembering that they had gone: Chicago, New York, Europe. It was a strange dislocation.

I finished the Canterbury Tales on the airplane and the next month or so will be a long, hard push to finish this draft of the book. By now the manuscript is tied to a great unwieldy cargo of hopes. If I could come into a little money by September, I just might run off to Oregon.


the argument

Comment box:

It is a truth not universally acknowledged that every story needs a civilized preface, otherwise the entirety of the plot and the careful delineation of the characters mean nothing. Without a preface, the gentle, or perhaps discerning reader, has no intimation of the author’s innermost foibles and neuroses, which are invariably of the utmost importance to the literary critics of the world.


Preface to Song of Roland

This book, as it stands in present form, first occurred to me in the depths of an Iowa corn maze shaped like the United States of America. I remember the summer breeze like the ripe flesh of first love, the golden light that gave succor to the simple farm-folk—and somewhere, somewhere, the Shriners keeping benevolent watch from their rickety wooden lookout tower, ready to enter us in a raffle if we could faithfully collect the names of the governors from all fifty states. And the gentle goats at the petting zoo.

During this journey, as we were making the tricky navigation down the ersatz corn Big Muddy and preparing to turn up the Ohio River toward the free states, like Huck and Jim in Twain's immortal Tom Sawyer, it occurred to me that a corn maze represented the perfect analog (or synecdoche or denouement, to use the arcane lit-theory terms) for the failure of Enlightenment philosophy. The aim was to subjugate Nature to a strict Cartesian pattern of lines and angles (not dissimilar to a computer chip, one would imagine, if it could be seen from an airplane or zeppelin), yet the corn it groweth as the wind it bloweth. Down amid the stalks, whose leaves rustled in the mystic zephyr as they lifted their phallic cargoes of maize unto the heavens, I felt the fecund life of the soil and knew that in time Nature would burst from these artificial confines. No raffle could halt the deluge.

That evening I rushed home to my cozy, book-lined, highly intellectual study, and in keeping with Whitman's dictum of "emotion tranquilly recollected," I immediately began to draw up a schema for the book, which would meld the essence of my corn epiphany with other longstanding psychological wounds, including:

—Memories from my unhappy childhood, in which I was a dreamer, always raptly meditating upon a delicate tracery of clouds over the horizon or the minuscule perfection of a tiny wildflower, while the other children on my soccer team repeatedly kicked me in the crotch;
—Fear of being mocked for my rural origins, which were so impoverished that on occasion we were forced to make jam from the spiny fruits of prickly pear cacti (Opuntia engelmannii);
—Oedipal tension with my father, and with any figure even remotely paternal in nature, including Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy's;
—The inevitability of death, as manifested in the weekly funeral procession from the goldfish bowl to the toilet, bearing aloft the sad vermillion carcass of "Goldy" or "Fishy" or "Goldfishy," granted so short a span of days to breathe the clean tapwater of this beloved city, and now consigned to no better fate than the malevolent gurgle of porcelain pipes;
—Anal sex.

From here, dear reader, I would like to say that the book wrote itself, but the truth is that it was backbreaking labor throughout, though you may find this impossible to believe when you first encounter the mellifluous waves of my prose. Like any great showman, a writer will take monumental pains to make his work look easy, but a typewriter and a Southern heritage alone are not enough to make a Faulkner. You must also have a bottle of bourbon. And then you must pray to the Muse. O pray to her. And may she vouchsafe her immortal light.


cadmium red

The comment box sends this e-text of Sir Thomas Urquhart's venerable translations of Rabelais. I have the selfsame translation of Gargantua and Pantagruel sitting on my shelf above the encyclopedias, along with 53 other "Great Books of the Western World," but it's taking many years to get to them all. I am just finishing the Chaucer (Great Book #22), now past the dry-as-dust Tale of Melibeus and Monk's Tale, and into the Nun's Priest's Tale, which is much more recognizably jolly and Chaucerian and has chickens giving each other laxatives to purge their choler and so on.

Er, Baghdad is going to "pass legislation outlawing the use of weapons of mass destruction." Well, problem solved! Send the inspectors home! I believe this was the French foreign minister's idea. Sure, I'm all for diplomatic solutions, but what the fuck.



Acción Mutante (1993). Imagine if Pedro Almodóvar had produced the Leprechaun movies. A bunch of militant mutants hide inside a wedding cake, take out the wedding with their giant guns, then kidnap the bride and take off for... er, Ganymede. That bit surprised me too. From that point there's the giant man-eating cat, the bride who develops Stockholm syndrome, the Siamese twins (one of whom dies halfway through, forcing his brother to lug around an unconvincing corpse-mannequin for the rest of the film), and a whole lot of blood. They all lisp like the proud Castilians they are, and there's an original rap song, plus shameless use of the Mission: Impossible theme. Recommended.


life as a sterile container

Up roos tho oon of thise olde wise, and with his hand made contenaunce that men sholde holden hem stille and yeven hym audience. "Lordynges," quod he, "ther is ful many a man that crieth 'Werre! Werre! that woot ful litel what werre amounteth. Werre at his bigynnyng hath so greet an entryng and so large, that every wight may entre whan hym liketh, and lightly fynde werre; but certes what ende that shal therof bifalle, it is nat light to knowe. For soothly, whan that werre is ones bigonne, ther is ful many a child unborn of his mooder that shal sterve yong by cause of thilke werre, or elles lyve in sorwe and dye in wrecchednesse. And therfore, er that any werre bigynne, men moste have greet conseil and greet deliberacion." And whan this olde man wende to enforcen his tale by resons, wel ny alle atones bigonne they to rise for to breken his tale, and beden hym ful ofte his wordes for to abregge. For soothly, he that precheth to hem that listen nat heeren his wordes, his sermon hem anoieth. For Jhesus Syrak seith that "musik in wepynge is a noyous thyng"; this is to seyn: as muche availleth to speken bifore folk to which his speche anoyeth, as it is to synge biforn hym that wepeth. And whan this wise man saugh that hym wanted audience, al shamefast he sette hym doun agayn.

—Chaucer, The Tale of Melibee

We had no sooner caught sight of a man whose behavior was harmless and peaceable and childlike and who was still in a state of innocence than all our praise-worthy and most necessary activities became stupid and repulsive. Pah—all that blood! We were ashamed of ourselves. But in the war there must have been generals even who felt the same.

—Hesse, Steppenwolf


good night sweet prints

Okay, finally, the last of the New Year's photos. These are Stewart's.

And these are mine:

Agape, or Selfless Love
How Many Were Going to St. Ives?
Man vs. Beast (1)
Man vs. Beast (2)
Man vs. Beast (3)
Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysic
Spleen Check
Three Sleeping Cats


an army of one

Weird variations on Freud's examination dream all night: first, that I had forgotten the honors English class at Stanford where they gave me a C+; then, that I had written the second chapter of Song of Roland entirely in the present tense, from the POV of a Hemingway-style straight-talking backwoods narrator who was a minor character, a decision so patently awful that I'd have to do the whole thing over; then, that Tobias Wolff was the doctor in charge of dispensing my antidepressants, and I was afraid to meet him because I thought he would find my life experience inadequate for a writer, given that he had been through Vietnam while I needed chemical support to go to restaurants without freaking out.

"This Army of robots that you see on television doesn't exist," [Christian Bauman] said, referring to the way elite units are depicted. "What percentage of soldiers are in elite units? Almost none. The real Army is made up of people like me, people who had no choice, people trapped and suffocating without enough education and a real job. It is this Army, I explain, along with what happens to it when it is sent into countries where we don't understand what is going on."


ev'ry valley shall be exalted

We were eleven hours getting there and back—as I told Eric, I can't recall the last time I spent eleven continuous hours doing anything, except sleeping.

Low in the valley, our goal still distant: [1] [2] [3]
The weird campsite built by some guy who apparently was living there until the Forest Service came and chased him out: [1]
Instances of the seven or eight waterfalls we had to climb around going up the valley: [1] [2]
Higher in the valley: [1]
Eric tending to his ripped pants: [1]
Our first sight of Finger Rock from behind: [1]
On top of the Guardian, looking west to Finger Rock (a bit hard to make out against the farther peak of Prominent Point, but note the finger protrusion on the left and the pale green lichen): [1] [2] [3]
On top of the Guardian, looking east to Mt. Kimball: [1]
On top of the Guardian, looking south to the city: [1]



Today, in our madness, Eric and I will attempt to scale The Guardian, which from the city appears to the immediate right of Finger Rock.

Nik has promised to stand by with a telescope to see if we make it up there. Given 13-14 hours of daylight, we may be able to do it; I'm taking lots of water and cheese. If no post appears tomorrow, you know where to send the helicopters.

Update: We made it, Nik got visual confirmation, and now so tired. We had to climb a lot of waterfalls and Eric ripped his pants spectacularly.


prepare thyself to deal with a miracle

O God I hate the frightening headlines that could plausibly appear at the beginning of sci-fi/horror movies.

Gaw suggests that when we rented La Pianiste I may have had Secretary in mind, which is entirely plausible as Secretary is supposed to be a cute S&M love story, but it will be a while before I rent it because this boy needs to get off the bondage train. I am trying to learn chess again.



The world-music microtonal piano is here. Maybe. If anyone buys it.

"The same creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today," President Bush said Saturday.

Damn it, the stars were all named by Arabs.

What does Groundhog Day mean when you've already had four weeks of summer? You can't avoid seeing your shadow out here; the sun etches everything. I'm told it was 90 degrees in L.A. the other day. The end times are near.


god as the history of chance

[Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon]'s wife seemed to agree, although she admitted to more pre-flight jitters than her husband.

"This is definitely exciting--it seems like a dream," she said in an interview before the mission. "I don't want to talk about fear. We're not talking about fear. I'm sure NASA is doing everything that is possible not to take any risks and chances," she said, adding, "The most calm and relaxed person is Ilan."

Of course nothing will go wrong, nothing ever goes wrong: every time you step onto an airplane you tell yourself this. The chance exists, but we are conditioned to ignore infinitesmal chances. One in ten thousand might as well be zero. But probability is a weird beast and a bad fit with the deterministic idea of the universe; every so often the subjunctive has a nasty way of turning indicative, and .01 percent shoots up to 100. The dice finish their roll, the roulette ball falls into its slot. The wave function collapses. The shuttle is lost.


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