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An apocalypse is not so much the total destruction of the world, as it is the unveiling of God’s immanence within the world, and the consequent destruction of illusion. Tadeusz Konwicki’s “A Minor Apocalypse” would have to be taken, then, to be a personal revelation, the simultaneous destruction of the little world of the narrator and the revelation of the God immanent within it. “A Minor Apocalypse” is known for being a satirical, bitter look at the degrading effects of totalitarianism on the individual and society.

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Konwicki

“I who am the statistical average in the Great Accounting.”
A disillusioned Polish novelist named Konwicki is ordered to immolate himself outside the Party Central Committee building. Two fellow graying oppositionist writers, Hubert and Rysio visit Konwicki to deliver the order. During their visit, Konwicki recalls a hilarious story about the passionate young Rysio, whom one drunken night attempted to sleep with a girl but instead accidentally made love to the pocket of Konwicki’s coat, “with a fierce and youthful fervor, perhaps even the first of his life.” He concludes, “Now Rysio wrote unpunctuated, amorphous prose, played adjunct to Hubert, and was a venerable figure in the literary world.”

When the discussion devolves into a quibble over the impact of his death, the latent tension between Rysio and Konwicki surfaces:

“Don’t make things more difficult, old man,” Rysio interjected.

“Don’t talk to me like you’re just one of the guys when you don’t use fucking commas and periods when you write.”

At a loss, Rysio began retreating toward the door. “The lack of periods bothers you?” he said uncertainly.

“If you used punctuation, then maybe we wouldn’t need show deaths in this country.”

Nonetheless, he tentatively accepts, and the reader accompanies him on his journey toward his final sacrificial act. He is also trailed by a foppish, young admirer from the country who hopes to immortalize his final hours before death, a stray dog, the lovestruck illegitimate granddaughter of Lenin, and the worn, world weary, Halina, whose role it is to acquire the Swedish matches and the can of gasoline for his “show death.”

All the while, confronted with the sins of his past, he struggles with a splitting headache, the result of drinking potato vodka, but also a semi-mystical vision of the end of the world:

“Sin has assumed the form of virtue…Amorality rules us using morality’s laws, it uses moral nomenclature, it constructs its own positive systems, it re wards saintliness and hurls the damned in to hell. Evil has tapped into our ethical code and turned itself into good. A fatal, cancerous good.”

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Mica Apocalipsa

Poland and the “Polish Complex”
Tadeusz Konwicki wrote “A Minor Apocalypse” during the post-Stalinist/pre-fall of communism era of the mid-seventies. Konwicki began his career as a card carrying Party member and an advocate of Social Realist art, but grew increasingly discontented until he was thrown out of the Party.

By the time he wrote “A Minor Apocalypse,” Konwicki was deeply familiar with the daily workings of the Polish culture industry and its collusion with the government. This shows in the novel’s bald treatment of various Polish artists and intellectuals; but you don’t need to know the details to appreciate the types of people he identifies.

A particularly cutting scene involves an art show by a retired minister of culture who had, “spent his entire professional life making artists rot in jail…now that he was retired, he had suddenly begun to envy his victims and had taken up painting himself…On every canvas there was a young naked woman with her pussy prudishly painted out.”

“His guests were also men of distinction- generals from the security police, governors, high officials from the Censorship, vice ministers. They too had become part of the artistic elite. They were writing memoirs and sensationalistic novels, carving tree roots, composing hit tunes, and sculpting busts of their colleagues who had passed away. Any of their children who did not wish a career in politics were placed in art schools. And so now the regime had its own art. The regime is self-sufficient. It creates reality and mirrors it in art.”

“But” as his translator, Richard Lourie notes, “that is local gossip, incidental. More important is Konwicki’s examination of the tensions, both tragic and comic, generated by a situation where conscience demands sacrifice and reality offers no hope that the sacrifice will be of any value or significance.”

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Uses of Allusion
Writers, filmmakers, and intellectuals, both disenfranchised and co-opted, crowd the margins of the story. He has repeated run-ins with fellow oppositionist writers and artists, and members of the government cultural apparatus, including Rysio’s twin, the Docent of Allusion.

The Docent works for the Censorship, who has formed “an independent department for allusions.”

“I have created a theory of how allusions function in a socialist society…The tension caused by the hunger for truth…those dangerous tensions are artificially eliminated by a skillfully employed allusion…after a certain amount of time, people will prefer an allusion to the truth itself.”

He concludes by noting, “Our system is an intellectual system, born of intellectuals.”

Allusion is used to veil the truth. Allusion becomes another form of oppression where the symbols are used to obscure the truth. Konwicki uses irony to demonstrate the subversive power of allusion and to point towards the underlying truths beneath the propaganda of life. Interrupting him mid-coitus with Lenin’s granddaughter, Halina calls to ask:

“What color gas can do you want? There’s a choice. Red, yellow, or blue?”

“Light blue, the color of innocence.” Because he reasons, “innocence is inconspicuous.”

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A Minor Literature
As the loose story coheres, it begins to resemble a parodic Stations of the Cross, the narrator making his way towards his own Golgotha. Whether any sincerity can be imbued in his sacrifice anymore, it is hard to say. Yet having enumerated the absurdity and decay of Polish society during this time, he feels a real utopian longing for a vital world. The messianic mission of his work feels authentic right to the end.

Warsaw, a small universe unto itself, is crumbling around them from indifference and neglect. More than once, he makes allusion, not merely to decay, but to the fin de siecle Decadence. Here, he seems to be saying, is what socialist Decadence looks like; apathy, disillusionment, self-disgust. “Decadence. The end that comes before an unknown beginning.” In one scene, a bridge collapses during a parade from sheer neglect, and the response of the people is largely boredom.

On the other hand, in an interview for the “Review of Contemporary Fiction,” he warned against looking for a singular point of view in his work:

Konwicki: It is characteristic of my style to charm, chat, contradict, leap, question, speak with self-irony, and just to make it look nice, I couch it in a literary-historical thesis. It doesn’t pay off to make much of my stories… I am very convincing even when I pull your leg.

 

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I.

Gonzo journalism relied on serendipity, and so it is fitting that serendipity brought me a copy of the new Rolling Stone with a cover story on Hunter S. Thompson, “Growing up Gonzo.” It inexplicably appeared in my mailbox a few days ago, addressed to an alias I’d never actually used, initials J.T. Mindful of the Dr.’s own tuning-fork sensitivity to such cryptic weirdness, I slid the bills out from inside the bent “u” of glossy pages and shut the box without touching the magazine. In the event it was a trap set by agents of Scientology, an amateur counterterrorism expert I met in a chatroom, known to me only as der_hund234, suggested I test the pages for trace amounts of a variety of psychoactive pharmaceuticals, and mercury as well. The magazine came back clean. I grabbed it by Hunter’s face and fled in full retreat; no one from Pitchfork or Fader appearing that doomed day to stop me from reading the foul ink of that dead carcass, Rolling Stone Magazine.

Sorry.

Only two years after his death and Hunter is already fading into history. Gonzo is so much a part of our society that his brand of journalism no longer requires a modifier to separate it out from ordinary journalism. Hunter became famous writing for Rolling Stone, so they have a certain proprietary concern with keeping his legacy alive. It reminds readers that RS didn’t always spend all its time reporting on Paris Hilton, but occasionally asked real questions,- about race, politics, culture, etc,- with real sentences, not just extended captions. The authors are RS founder, Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour, a former RS staffer, so it is an in-house job. The article itself is actually the first chapter from their forthcoming book, “Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson.”

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II.
It functions less as an article than a collage of memories from various persons who knew Hunter throughout his life, from childhood friends to Hell’s Angels to writers to ex-wives, which explains the subtitle ‘oral history.’ Noticeably absent from the teaser are his celebrity friends, – Jack Nicholson, Johnny Depp, and Bill Murray, all who presumably appear in later chapters. As an introduction to Hunter, it is fascinating. Many of the interviewees are surprisingly candid and insightful about him, and speculate intelligently on the significance of his persona, his writing, and his place in history.

As an early childhood friend, Porter Bibb described him:

“I was always amazed at Hunter’s networking ability. He was solidly middle-class, yet he was hanging out with some multi-millionaire families. Hunter had friends in both high and low society…People gave him, when he was growing up, a huge amount of latitude…”

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III.

Hunter started his journalism career in the Air Force where he wrote press releases that showcase his early talent for embellishment and hyperbole. It may be here that he first repurposed reportage writing for viscerally powerful fictional works that both mimicked and mocked the voice of authority.

Gene McGarr: “The last thing he did, in November 1957, was to write up a press release describing a riot that took place at Elgin when the enlisted men attacked the women’s quarters and the officer’s mess — stole all the booze, got drunk as shit, attacked the women, beat up two officers. It was a very funny and colorful story — completely fictional, of course — and he sent a copy of it to the AP and to UPI, left a copy on his captain’s desk, then drove like a son of a bitch for the gate.”

Hunter was only interested in fiction in so far as he could blend it with truth; only interested in the two in so far as he could, like twins, dress them alike and confuse them with each other. He forced the reader to scrutinize their assumptions about “the facts,” until the line between fiction and truth, fact and lie, history and invention became so suspicious, so drunkenly blurred that abandoning the distinction altogether became the only reasonable way to live, the only responsible thing to do. A personal vice became a political tool and gave birth to a writing style, Gonzo Journalism.

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IV.

William Kennedy calls Hunter’s writing, a “mutation of the fictional form (90).” It is also a mutation of the True Crime Novel genre, established by Truman Capote with In Cold Blood. Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing are the dark doubles, the Mr. Hydes, of the genre. Told from the outlaw’s perspective, the narratively tidy needs of procedural reconstruction and detached analysis give way to loose associative rebellion and war reporting from within an America he saw as at the brink of a second civil war.

One of the best passages from the article is his ex-wife’s account of a party Hunter organized with Ken Kesey to bring together the Hell’s Angels, the Merry Pranksters, and counterculture luminaries like Allen Ginsberg. It is the sort of truth that sounds much harder to swallow than the myth it hides behind. Thompson drove his wife and their infant son to the party. When they arrived, narcotics officers were hiding in the hills and there was a banner stretched across the road welcoming the Hell’s Angels:

Neal Cassady was there, and Allen Ginsberg. Kesey played this four-hour documentary about the Magic Bus… Kesey’s children, who were maybe five or seven, were there – they had taken acid too, though Hunter didn’t. At some point we jumped in a car with Ginsberg to go get some booze. We got stopped by the police, and they asked us who we were. All Ginsberg would say was, “I’m a poet…I’m a poet,” which Hunter and I thought was funny (89).

This incident is starkly contrasted with the revelation that the Angels had gangbanged a girl in a cabin next to Kesey’s home. She describes Hunter’s guilt because he felt, “at fault for bringing them all together, and he felt sick (89).”

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Someday I will write a comparison of Kierkegaard and Hunter S. Thompson.

V.
Politically, Hunter believed in leftist libertarian politics, but in his heart was too anarchic to belong to any sincere political movement, much less the Democratic Party. Hunter was somehow at once a unique individual and a cipher for all these heterogeneous voices that were mounting an insurgency against the dominant monoculture of the time. He wasn’t a socialist, or a redneck, despite getting along with them too, and he wasn’t a hippie or a biker, though he championed their causes. And though he hated and derided Nixon (calling him, “a monument to all the rancid genes and broken chromosomes that corrupt the possibilities of the American Dream; he was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad), he also held him in a strangely high regard. Hunter Thompson’s ambition was to swallow the whole era like a handful of pills. America had become a nation of outlaws and villains, he realized, – be they bikers, hippies, rednecks, or Nixon. To write about them, he engulfed their contradictions, and let them go to work on his insides, his brain, his liver, his heart, his guts.

President of the Oakland Hell’s Angels, Sonny Barger, said of Hunter: “He didn’t belittle us…He made us even more of a myth than we were at the time (89).”

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The novel takes its name from a mathematical category, the remainder. A remainder is what’s left over. Typically, we think of a remainder as waste, as unused excess. Unwanted books, clothes, and CDs go in a remainder bin. We treat remainders as nullities, as zeros, but this leftover quantity is never zero; it always remains, positive or negative, and must be considered when accounting for the sum.

In Remainder, the victim of an accident, an unnamed 30 year old man, receives an enormous settlement and uses it to create spaces and events from his imagination that feel realer, that have a stronger emotional resonance, than the life he led before the accident.

Amnesia Fiction
At first he suffers from amnesia. When his memories do return, it is without emotional attachment, they are like “installments of a soap opera.” The literary subtexts of amnesia are all handled by McCarthy in a perfunctory manner; the traumatic event, the quest for recovery, the fragility of self, and the fantasy of escape all become self-reflexive literary elements in the narrator’s story. Estrangement from reality is the starting point for his active identification with his artificial creations. His singular obsession, to create a seamless fictional reality and then occupy the sole autonomous space within it, fills the bulk of the novel.

Tom McCarthy

Though he is British, Tom McCarthy’s first novel is very French, or more specifically, Remainder belongs to the lineage of French novels embraced by America. Every review notes his debt to the young Sartre of Nausea, but the novel is steeped in the whole literary tradition of France.

Previously, McCarthy worked with the archly-ironic avant-garde group, International Necronautical Society. The INS shares Remainder’s preoccupation with using artificial space to realize abstract, immanent realities, and with the amoral, fascistic, and murderous aspects of extreme aestheticism.

The first INS manifesto declares:

1. That death is a type of space, which we intend to map, colonise and, eventually, inhabit.

2. That there is no beauty without death, its immanence. We shall sing death’s beauty; that is beauty.

Beneath this pastiche (blank parody) of Breton (“Beauty will be convulsive or not at all”), Marinetti (“War, the worlds only hygiene,” “Poetry must be a violent assault against the unknown forces in order to overcome them and prostrate them before men.”), and other leaders of the historical avant-garde, is a sincere program that aims at the redefinition of space, of what constitutes, “a space” as an analogy for experience.

Consistent with this objective is a phenomenological question about the self’s relationship to a virtualized, monetized world of objects and people that can be assigned flat, Brechtian roles. By flattening the other to pure two-dimensionality, the narrator’s experiments with imaginary fully-aestheticized spaces are acts of self-recognition. This is signaled by the curious tingling sensations that surge through him when fully immersed in his constructs.

The novel begins:

“About the accident itself I can say very little. Almost nothing. It involved something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits. That’s it, really: all I can divulge. Not much, I know.”

(The first chapter of Remainder is available online at NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/25/books/chapters/0225-1st-mcca.html)

A psychiatrist would say his voice has low affect, a symptom of some form of disassociative disorder. He shows no attachment to his past, no emotional connection to the people around him, just a singular obsession with staging elaborate scenes, with constructing new space, and molding individuals into flat masks to serve his roles.

Neo-Sartrean Hero
The only emotion he grabs onto or experiences with any vividness is his reaction at certain moments to certain details of his stagings. This is a familiar borrowing from Nausea, but whereas nausea is the Sartrean response to contact with “complete” objects, things in-themselves, McCarthy’s hero feels a curious tingling elation while scrutinizing details of his creations. Functionally, it appears to invert Sartre’s formula, while still working within its confine.

Sartre divides Being into, “in-itself,” “for-itself,” and “for-others.” Human beings are fundamentally being “for-itself;” but can be lured into behaving in bad faith, as being “in-itself” or “for others.” Individuals who do not embrace freedom seek to be “for others;” that is, an object of another’s subjectivity. McCarthy’s hero takes Sartre’s distinction in a Nietzschean direction. His protagonist actually seems to abhor the presence of individuals not playing roles for him.

Huysmans and Decadence

 

McCarthy also owes a debt to Huysmans’s decadent masterpiece, A Rebours (translated alternately as, “Against Nature,” or “Against the Grain”). Like Remainder, A Rebours focuses on an aesthete with inherited wealth but no one to inherit it who retreats into a private aesthetic world that transgresses accepted morality as well as humanity. The story culminates in the decadent hero’s complete inversion of biological processes, by ingesting food through his anus and voiding the waste through his mouth. At the time, Huysmans wrote his novel, Western Europe was undergoing dramatic transformations. The fin de siecle era, which he wrote during, depicted a culture in decay.

McCarthy’s aesthetic project is both a retreat and an insurgency; a portrait that captures the schizoidal malaise of contemporary westerners. Our uniqueness must be as overvalued by others as it is by ourselves, an experience we can purchase in small doses. Freed from economic and empathic restrictions, McCarthy’s neo-Sartrean figure carries this to its logical, mathematical extreme.

Inequality satisfies the uniqueness of the remainder.

 

“I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”- Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

 

Hidden in the Business section of the September 15th issue of the New York Times is an article, “The Literature of Capitalism,” about a book, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

Harriet Rubin’s angle seems to be that Atlas Shrugged, approaching its 50th anniversary, continues to be one of the most influential works of literature in America, particularly among moguls, CEOs, and tycoons. In the post-Enron era, CEOs look to Rand’s magnum opus for confirmation of their oppressed status. A USA Today article from a few years ago on the resurgent interest in Atlas Shrugged among CEOs and execs included the following:

 

“Business is an available scapegoat,” says Frank Bond, founder of Holiday Health Spas, now Bally’s, and a developer and manager of real estate, an industry that he says is overtaxed and “regulated to death.”

“If you want to attack a group of people and still be politically correct, executives are about your last available target, says Bond, who has read the book twice.”

Mogul Lit

‘Mogul Lit’ must be a new subgenre. It would include such narrative stunners as Who Moved My Cheese?, What Color is my Parachute? (Interrogative titles are good), and the Suze Orman oeuvre. Comparatively, Ayn Rand is a master storyteller, but compared to a storyteller?

…not so much.

Look at what Hank says to Dagny after they sleep together for the first time:

“What I feel for you is contempt. But it’s nothing, compared to the contempt I feel for myself. I don’t love you. I’ve never loved anyone. I wanted you from the first moment I saw you. I wanted you as one wants a whore – for the same reason and purpose. I spent two years damning myself, because I thought you were above a desire of this kind…”

Actually, this may be exactly how yuppie businessmen talk to their paramours. The article reveals, with testimony upon testimony- including from one-time disciple Alan Greenspan, that the successful businessmen of America draw inspiration from her worldview. John A. Allison, chief executive of one of the largest banks in the United States reveals,

“I know from talking to a lot of Fortune 500 C.E.O.’s that ‘Atlas Shrugged’ has had a significant effect on their business decisions, even if they don’t agree with all of Ayn Rand’s ideas.”

Summarizing the books enduring appeal for the ambitious, he adds,

“It offers something other books don’t: the principles that apply to business and to life in general. I would call it complete.”

What do these “complete” principles look like?

“When I die, I hope to go to heaven – whatever the hell that is – and I want to be able to afford the price of admission”

“Virtue is the price of admission.”

“That’s what I mean, James. So I want to be prepared to claim the greatest virtue of them all – that I was a man who made money.” (94) – Francisco and James Taggart.

Perfect Capitalism

In the same USA Today article, Nicolas Boillot, president of ad agency Hart-Boillot dissents, “Perfect capitalism is as attractive and impossible as perfect communism. The greedy and lazy will ruin either system for the rest.” And Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, CEO of the Leadership Institute at Yale University, said executives who take refuge in the capitalist utopia of Atlas Shrugged are “reading themselves into a trance of defensive self-delusion.”

Atlas Shrugged and its slender older sister, The Fountainhead are two of the most influential, most widely read books in America, even though they and the theory of Objectivism that informs them, are critically reviled and professionally repudiated by both writers and philosophers. Whenever I see someone with either one of these books, I want to smack it out of their hands. Atlas Shrugged is Objectivism’s Battlefield Earth; both are read with astonishing allegorical generosity and fervent religious literalism. Both are sloppy, adolescent genre writing elevated among its proselytizing devotees, but while Scientology appeals to celebrities, Objectivism has its fascist nerds turned CEOs.

“Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns–or dollars. Take your choice–there is no other.”

What puzzles me is the outsider’s tone adopted by those arguably in control of society. This pose has been struck by the Neo-Con and Libertarian wings of the Right since the Reagan Revolution to great success until now. And Objectivism’s callous attitude towards the persons upon whose backs the great build their pyramids is contiguous with their politics. More likely though, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Libertarian/Neo-Con/Evangelical political conglomerate under George W. Bush, callow, rich people are in search of a new demagoguery. Ayn Rand may be in for a popular resurgence as an intellectual guiding light for the re-organizing Right.

“Next to the originator of a great sentence is the first quoter of it.
Said Emerson.” p.12

With only twenty pages left to go in this slender but not slight novel, I was sure I knew what was going to happen. It wasn’t hard to guess that the narrator, Novelist, was likely to commit suicide by leaping from the roof of his apartment building. Figuring out the why wasn’t difficult either. He is, as he reminds us more than once, “Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke.” Most of the novel, some may balk at even calling it a novel, is taken up by quotes and anecdotes about various artists and creators that Novelist has culled from his long life of reading and writing. Mostly he fixates on the lives of great artists who like him have ended up “Old. Sick. Tired. Alone. Broke,” or have committed suicide as he is clearly contemplating.

A coworker walking by my desk was attracted to the graphic design of the cover, on which a blank book is open with the title and author names floating over the page. I explained the book to him and he looked skeptical, as if to say, that can’t be a book. He picked it up, and flipped through a few pages and said first, “there is a lot of white space,” and then secondly, “how do you know what’s going on?”

The Last Novel is, aside from a meditation on death, a meditation on what minimally constitutes the category of Novel. Largely a collection of anecdotes pasted together, one is forced to read Novelist’s character and story through the filter of these references, making him and the story itself almost pure reference and allusion.

The anecdotes move from the mundane to the comical to the tragic to the enigmatic to the gnomic. Some of them worth sampling include:

A man standing up to his neck in a cesspool- and adding to its contents.
Carlyle called Swineburne.
127

Life is a long process of getting tired.
Say Samuel Butler’s Notebooks.
125

Artists are the monks of the bourgeois state.
Said Cesare Pavese.
123

Jean Genet was arrested for the first time- for theft- at the age of ten.
38.

The reader discovers the Novelists other preoccupations and tantalizing hints of his life through his selection of anecdotes and quotations. The literary relationship, with all its codependency, camaraderie, jealousy, and antagonisms, is one of the key themes:

“I am not an orphan on this earth, so long as this man lives on it. Said Gorky re Tolstoy.”

Markson follows immediately with an entry from Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia’s diary to undercut Gorky.

“He doesn’t have a drop of love for his children, for me, or for anyone but himself.”
8-9.

So is critical reception:

“Venomously malignant. Noxious. Blasphemous. Grotesque. Disgusting. Repulsive. Entirely bestial. Indecent.
Being among the critical greetings for leaves of Grass.
Not to omit ithyphallic audacity.
Plus garbage.”
5.

On page 79, Novelist reveals this rare, personal detail, “Old enough to have started coming upon likenesses on postage stamps of other writers he had known personally or had at least met in passing.” At times, the line between a literary anecdote and potential gossip from his own life becomes blurred, a technique that speaks directly to the question of how the stuff of small lives, of petty people becomes Art with a capital A. Markson chooses to dig at this question in a funny way, by illustrating the all-too-human, petty vices and jealousies and injustices that plague all artists. Novelist, like all artists, “the monks of the bourgeois state,” want to be rescued from a human fate, from pettiness, from injustice, ignominy, and death. Markson’s gives us a portrait of the artist as an old man. “Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke.” Everything else disappears into the Art.

The fiftieth anniversary of On the Road is being celebrated or eulogized in many corners with the publication of the original scroll of paper Kerouac banged out his crank-fueled prose on in a single drooling strand so thick you’d think it hung from the lip of a salivating dog. I say eulogized because I think we can all agree that it is an entombed corpse, a monument to an era so removed from our own that to call it thrice dead is to forget what we did with the inner organs after we removed them to begin the mummification process. The book itself was a eulogy for a by-gone boyhood era that somehow was transmogrified by Boomers into a zeitgeisty bible for their adolescence. In turn it has become THE book of American male adolescence, repackaged and made timeless for consumption by each succeeding generation.

On the Road isn’t the beatnik call to arms. That’s Ginsberg’s Howl. On the Road is a protest against Cold War conformity, the suburbanization of American space, the rationalization of the American male psyche and libido.

On the Road, as everyone knows, is an aimless travel story that zips meaninglessly back and forth across the landscape of America. This ability to ricochet across the landscape was new in the 40s and provides the core of the books appeal to Boomers and newly liberated adolescents. The point Kerouac is making with this ricochet trajectory is deeper than such aimless travel suggests. Previously, geographical space meant something. For America in particular, it meant this wild real unknown interior space contained by the abstract domesticated America. Even as they discover this real America, Dean and Sal are destroying it by the meaninglessness of their movements. Once, every inch of ground gained was fought for, recovered, or tamed; every inch of it held meaning in a national mythology. Dean and Sal bounce between the coasts striking cities along the way haphazardly. They are also retracing. They are retracing those first meaningful steps and in the retracing sanctifying it, mummifying the myth; completing it without truly participating in it. It is a form of nostalgia.

Richard Brautigan’s first novel, A Confederate General from Big Sur, published 1964, captures this nostalgia perfectly. The main characters, an introspective Sal-like Brautigan-double and Lee Mellon, the eponymous general and 60s hippie re-incarnation of the beatnik Dean Moriarty camp out at Big Sur, which feels more and more like the very razor’s edge of knowable space in America, and try desperately to bring the wonder of the frontier of the American myth back to life by, basically, playing pretend. It seems that with the frontier gone, one finally has to travel inward and smallward to find those spaces, which is a maturing of the American character. But staying out at the frontier’s edge long past the end, furiously, masturbatorily trying to reanimate the irretrievable past is indicative of a state of arrested development. Similarly, Dean dances thumbless at the end. Sal has grown inwardly, and like all grown men, looks back at his adolescent yearnings in the shape of his jigging compatriot, wistfully, but also ruefully.

I, too, read On the Road in high school and misunderstood it as a directive to rocket into unexplored territories, but by 1995 there weren’t as many of those as there once had been, so instead I ended up with a plane ticket to San Francisco. It wasn’t longer than the first or second day before I found myself inside Mecca (City Lights Books), staring at racks of uncreased Beat novels, a whole row devoted to a thick stack of On the Roads.

When do we discard our heroes? For Sal it seems to be when he fully immerses in the life of the simple tenement farmers, picking cotton and raising children. Their final trip to Mexico is the sort of desperate adventure men make to relive their glory days. The last time he sees Dean he doesn’t see him the same way because Sal has irrevocably grown older. Years after I’d abandoned Kerouac to the remainder pile of adolescence along with Brautigan and Bukowski and Existentialism, I took a course on the American Novel, and there smack in the middle of the syllabus were the kooky adventures of Sal and Dean. First, I rolled my eyes so hard I thought I might go blind (a real danger for some eye-rolling cynics I know), then I approached the book with embarrassed trepidation, before finally treating it as a archeological dig; so what if I was digging up the skeletal remains of my own adolescence along with it? Between these pages was the terminally juvenile marrow of the 20th century American male.

What I found was a deeper book than the one I’d read at 16, a subtler book than I’d wanted back then. Beneath its crackling kinetic sentences and antic storytelling, a soft, pulsing mournful moan could be heard. Is it a flawed book; dated, aimless, and sloppy? Sure, but it is also careful in ways and surprisingly well-structured. The growth of Sal’s perception shapes the book. His subterranean journey from innocence to experienced parallels the national evolution from a naïve adventurer into a self-aware player on the world stage in the Cold War era. In some sense then, On the Road does belong to the 60s; Moriarty and Neal Cassady belong there too.

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Falling Man

By co-incidence I was leaving New York for Oakland the day DeLillo’s 9-11 novel, Falling Man was released. I picked up a new copy at St. Mark’s before heading to the airport and read it cover to cover in transit, finishing the final pages on BART. He takes the image of an unknown man falling from the North Tower as his central motif though his main character is a survivor, one of those soot coated businessmen that escaped eerily unscathed. It has been said that the image itself, of the waiter from the Windows on the World plunging in a dive, has been curiously omitted from the public imagination of that day and, knowing DeLillo, I can see his interest in returning that bit of repressed collective memory to the raw center of the event where it belongs.

The Falling Man of his fictional world is a mysterious performance artist who sets up in various locales around New York and recreates the image, but to me, the real Falling Man of DeLillo’s novel is the survivor, the one who escaped unscathed. Surviving seems to place the individual in a strange category, yet many more survived that day than died. Discussing the book, a coworker related the story of his friend who was inside one of the towers and was even soaked in jet fuel from one of the planes as it crashed through the building- and he survived. Surviving, for DeLillo’s protagonist, is less satisfying than the tidiness of death and the satisfaction of the instinct towards death (DeLillo once said, “All plots move deathwards”). He remains suspended mid-fall, mid-flight. Similarly, I think our national response to the historical moment is trapped in the amber of the mediation of September 11th.

By now, a variety of novels and films have addressed themselves to the events of six years ago. In a few years, it went from verboten to obligatorily, still, the responses are all, even when affecting a grotesque sentimentality, curiously restrained. To see what I mean, consider the harshness of the image of the falling man. I’ll admit the sight of it makes me squirm. Even DeLillo’s novel suffers partly from this curious constraint, despite its greater willingness to evoke rather than sentimentalize.

Kitsch

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The only appropriate art is pious art. Piety should be performed with moral seriousness but without sentimentality otherwise it veers into kitsch. Consider the images of eagles crying or conversely the defiantly absurd, ‘America is open for shopping’ signs; the Janus-face of kitsch in the days after the events. The art world and intelligentsia have been no less immune to tacky responses. Three words: Jonathan Safran-Foer.

(For a right on evisceration of Foer, read the review, “EXTREMELY CLOYING & INCREDIBLY FALSE,” by Harry Siegel for New York Press. http://www.nypress.com/18/15/news&columns/harrysiegel.cfm)

 

Photo-evidence.
By far the most fascinating photo from six years ago is not the Falling Man, nothing from the WTC, but a powerful amateur photo snapped from the porch of a semi-rural Pennsylvania home with a digital camera. Yesterday, the NYT had an article about this photo, the only one taken of the crash of United 93 in Pennsylvania.

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The photos is arresting because, rather than in spite, of its kitschy, sentimental qualities; its supersaturated coloration and American “heartland” pastoral tropes are rendered unreal next to the black plume of smoke from the crash. No wonder so many see the photo as a staged fake. It feels too real to be real. Interesting too, was the story of the woman who took it. She has been relentlessly harassed by 9-11 conspiracists in print, on the internet, and at her home.

Whuz Really Real?
The impact of the picture comes from the appeal of the “story” of that day viewed from the vantage it suggests, not the hoary spectacle of the newscycle, not the insider’s story from New York, not the conspiracy theorists abstractions. It offers access to a singularly naïve window denied to us, or perhaps quickly forgotten in the subsequent overexposure as it passed from current event into modern myth. This is the responsibility of art in such a heavily mediated environment that has largely been shirked but somehow is distilled spontaneously in this picture: to return the spectator to the moment of wondering confusion and fear that is our lot in the face of the raw welter of events.

Though DeLillo’s performance artist seems to have this as his goal, I think if I saw him in life I would feel the same way about him that I do the Lego Twin Towers. Where some have found fault, I would argue this is DeLillo’s intention.In the final scenes of the novel, as those minutes in the Towers wrap around to join the opening scenes in the street below, we see a reality swift, brutal, and humbling in its destructive force. Reality is revealed for what it is, unstable and chaotic. The artist by contrast is static. Any art that seeks to confront tragedy on a mass scale must pierce the veil of mass fabrication and arrive at something personal.