“clumsiness & truth are so often intertwined we tend to take their copulation for granted.”

[Re-posting this old piece of mine — conjuring days of old in the spirit of May Day.]

Dear ________,

You misunderstand me, so let me be clear: I do not want the City to “support” the Occupy movement or its Commune. Indeed, though I risk misunderstanding yet again so soon after such momentary clarity, I think it would be very foolish public policy for them to do so. Much better, I think, to go the disingenuous route of the Councilperson whose letter you’ve attached, and insist on a vapid sympathy.

While I agree with the message of the Occupy movement and consider myself, along with all City Employees, including the men and women in our Police Department, to be part of the 99%, I disagree that occupying Frank Ogawa Plaza, shutting down the Port, or calling for a general strike against our City, is going to impact the 1% that this movement is supposed to be targeting.

What genius is on display here in one of the more nakedly clumsy co-opting of populism in my recent memory. The Councilperson doesn’t even bother to give the dignity of a period to his agreement. Here in the opening paragraph of his letter, the feeblest of commas is all that separates his agreement with “the message of the Occupy movement” and his self-consideration as “part of the 99%” from the declarative strongman of this magnificent sentence, “I disagree.” Provided the Occupy movement does not camp, strike, or shut down a port, which is to say, provided it does precisely nothing it has in actual fact done the past three weeks, he supports it completely. The only reservation he has concerning the Occupy movement is its actual existence. Would that it could be but a “message”! — by all means, a call to be dissatisfied, even angry, but to be so at home, please, as quietly as possible, yes, at least until election day, when those so called might vote for cynical opportunists like himself.

This Councilperson is in the minority, I believe, in his clumsiness, but not in the desire to show support for the Occupy movement on his own terms. And while I understand perfectly well why the City, all of its administrative stars & ideological stripes, would go this route, I fear you don’t appreciate why the Occupy movement would do well to develop a strong allergy to any & all public expressions of sympathy by those who are formally in (or are seeking formal) power. It seems to me that the moment a city officially loses the “but” after its stated solidarity is the moment the truth of this allegiance has been lost — clumsiness & truth are so often intertwined we tend to take their copulation for granted. (Or, I should add, it is the day after a revolutionary upheaval. But, alas, I am not at all confident any of us have enough dying light remaining actually to see that morning. Rome was not unbuilt in a day, as a friend said to me recently, and arguably our allotment of days are insufficient to the cause, if not the struggle itself.)

So, in close, while we agree that the Commune should remain illegal, I have no interest in its relocation. I would much prefer that it be declared illegal and remain exactly where it is, in order that it might continue to test the City’s ability to uphold the consequences of that illegality. The gross flouting of the law–or at least its outright disregard–this is what seems necessary to expose its many inadequacies (& those of its administrators). In this way, the Commune’s symbolic value as a site of disobedience is also the unavoidable germ of its undoing. The present age, you’ve insisted in the past, has had very little real use for such symbols, but are either of us yet prepared to say the same of the future that remains?


“Do you have a branch campus in Florida?”

From a footnote of his magnificent book Where the North Sea Touches Alabama, Allen C. Shelton recounts a job application letter for an unnamed university teaching position he scrawled by hand while shivering through a “blizzard of the century.” He presumably did not send this draft. In any event, he points out, “I didn’t get the job.” I thought a good many here might appreciate reading.

I’m writing this bundled up in as many layers as I can wear and still more. I’m wrapped up in the wool blanket, wearing the only gloves I own—a pair of brown gardening gloves with a finger missing. My dog chewed the finger off. It’s probably twenty-five degrees inside. Outside, the greatest storm of the century is knocking my house for a loop. The weatherman of the battery-operated radio makes me feel almost privileged to be here, shivering in the dark, without power. “This is the storm of the century,” he hums, like the wind shredding the win on my barn roof. The worst of it is I’m bored to death. There’s only so much sleep and staring into space that I can take before I crave watching TV. I feel like a stroke victim—cold and numb. The wind is gusting up to fifty miles an hour. I can feel it. I live in a house built in 1834. It has its own respiratory system. I can see the curtains wheezing. My dogs have taken over the kitchen. My wife and son have taken over the big bed. That leaves me with either a wick-backed sofa or where I’m stuck now, at my desk. This was desperation. Reading was impossible. I couldn’t turn the pages with my gloves on. I read too fast to take the gloves on and off and those slow, meditative books I’ve been putting off reading—I’m putting off reading. I think they make me colder. So why did I listen to my wife and unhook the woodstove? It made sense at the time. I could move in some more books. We hadn’t used it in years. Now it’s the storm of the century and I’m freezing. So I’m writing. My toes are cold. I look like a character in A Christmas Carol. Amazingly, the ink isn’t freezing in my fountain pen. It must be cold in the North Carolina mountains. Do you have a branch campus in Florida? Unless it’s the Keys, it might be cold there though. I just remembered the weatherman with his right arm sending arrows streaking through Florida before the cable went out. My house is set off in the country. The nearest house is a half mile away and I’m related to them. The nearest hamburger is seven miles over the mountain. The nearest house right now with running water and power is twenty-six miles down the road, but that changes by the hour. The closest may be in Florida by now. (212-213)

Annotated List of Notable Books I Read This Year (in no particular order)

  • Speedboat & Pitch Dark, Renata Adler

2013 was a good year for Adler. Sure, it took a couple of years and NYRB re-publications, but her two wonderful novels, Speedboat and Pitch Dark are finally being given the due they deserve. Adler’s prose is precision sharp, psychologically dense (& as a result quite real), and nothing really feels particularly dated in either book. Pitch Dark is arguably a bit better, but the bursts of Speedboat are more explosive & make it a better starting point.

  • Seiobo There Below, László Krasznahorkai

Krasznahorkai’s most recent book is, let’s be blunt, his greatest so far. And, in truth, it’s probably the greatest thing published in English this year. You think I’m exaggerating, but I am not. The man is a wizard, and he pulls off audacious, seemingly pretentious maneuvers like twenty-page sentences, such that you quickly lose sight of the audacity and find yourself instead wherever he damn well wants you. Beauty and horror never so much collide or come at odds in Krasznahorkai’s world, nor are they infused or resolved dialectically. They somehow interpenetrate the other in unbalanced, sometimes grotesque ways. Seiobo There Below repeatedly rehearses precisely how this looks, and I could not look away.

Continue reading “Annotated List of Notable Books I Read This Year (in no particular order)”

Book Discussion [Stoner]: “What did you expect?”

A quick internet search reveals that John Williams’ novel Stoner has become something of a literary phenomenon since its re-release by NYRB Classics a few years ago. Appreciated if not adored when it was originally published in 1965, today it’s become an international bestseller. I suppose I want to start my meandering thoughts on the novel by asking Why now? That is to say, what does it say about the novel and the times that it’s now captured the literary imagination. Obviously, some works of art just take a while to find their audience. Moby-Dick famously needed some seventy or eighty years to gain its momentum. It seems all the more obvious to me, however, that such works do not simply lie in wait like Prince Charmings turned toads, quietly minding the years, puckering for every princess who walks by before finally being picked up and smooched by one of the maids. The novel, and by this I mean any novel, is somehow different “now” than it was “then.” Strictly speaking, there is no “then” to speak of. It’s funny to me that we can say what appears to be the opposite and mean the same thing: “then” is only ever spoken of.

Perhaps then, better than Why now? I should pose the same question differently. Who now? That is, who now is reading Stoner, and finding in this story of a single, rather cut-and-dry life of a middle class, unremarkable English professor, something not nearly so homogenous? Well before David Foster Wallace was extolling the hum drum as a medium for a life’s worth of passion, and ultimately failing in his attempt to render this message in a novel, it seems to me that John Williams did so in Stoner. This isn’t to say it cannot be done again, or that no other artist worth her salt should try — no new things under the sun, etc. My point, maybe a little clumsily expressed, is rather to unite the questions: who are these readers looking for a different perspective on the mundane? and why are they now so ravenous? Again, I refuse to think the answer is so so banal as we’re somehow more mundane now than they were then. Continue reading “Book Discussion [Stoner]: “What did you expect?””

Book Discussion Group: Stoner

Apologies to everybody expecting an introductory post for the discussion of Stoner. Life has intervened over the weekend, in the form of an F-150 slamming into the passenger-side of my car. I’m pain-free, thankfully, but not without residual hassles.

Rest assured, I will get something up this week. Or, if somebody wants to come to my rescue and post something, feel free to let me know.

And the Winner is . . . .

Thanks to everybody who weighed the pros & the cons between choosing William H. Gass’ Middle C and John Williams’ Stoner as the subject of our late-summer reading group. If you’ve not checked, I am excited to inform you that the winner is . . . . John Williams’ Stoner! Sorry, Billy — maybe when you’re in paperback next year.

Anyway, I’m really excited to get your input on this. If you’ve not yet read Stoner, you should be able to do so in the matter of a couple of days. It’s not particularly long, and I found it reads quickly. With that in mind, would August 5th be a good time to begin? I (or anybody who volunteers) can post something — some introductory thoughts or reflections — about the book, and we can begin banging things about in the comments. From there, we can fluidly work out who wants to write a formal post and who wants to keep their participation to the comments. Sound good?

I should add, though I’d hope it’s obvious: everybody, whether you voted or not, is invited to participate in this. The novel is pretty fantastic, and I’m more than convinced it will resonate (for good and ill) with a good many of you plodding & peddling through the life academic. It’s a pessimistic novel, but not cynical; and even in the end, the whole is not nearly as pessimistic as the constituent parts. Ah, but I’ll save further comment for later.

Book Discussion, Anyone?

So, we’ve not done this in a while . . . anybody up for a book discussion series? Not one of the smarty-pant kinds we do around here regularly. But of a novel, poetry collection, etc.. If so, any suggestions? (Only about a month or so left of summer, so something of reasonable length and ambition would be nice, if we want to include the academically engaged/employed.)

Since I’m the one posting I’ll throw out the first suggestion: having recently read it, I’d love to discuss John Williams’ Stoner. It’s a pretty densely male novel, I admit, but the academic setting is appropriate to a lot of our interests here; and the sheer density of the masculinity, I find, is worth talking about. (I.e., I really want to write something about Williams’ portrayal of Stoner’s wife.)

UPDATE: Okay, a few of you have piped up, and a recurring comment has been “Stoner or Middle C would work fine.” (We apparently have the means available to get the latter to you, if it is chosen.) A few other books have been mentioned, but none of which have particularly interested me. So, there you have it. We’ll let this poll decide it for us.

The Art of the Hatchet Job Review

A few years ago, back in the days when I used actually to post regularly here, I dropped a reference in the comments to a certain low-blow, embarrassing book review [PDF] that a friend of mine suffered in the pages of The Journal of Theological Studies. These were the heady days before Twitter took off, though, so the scandal of it all was fairly muted, and relegated mostly to a few follow-up comments.

Today I got word from the same friend that JTS has a new reviews editor, and they’ve taken a fairly surprising approach of actually addressing the shit they dropped on the floor. JTS Review

I can only hope now that Professor (Emeritus) Elliott has been told that his reviews are no longer welcome. At least then the stinky odor will have not only been identified but also wiped up.

In any event, I encourage you to read the review in all its vindictive glory. It will make you feel a lot better about the hatchet jobs done to your work.

God: The Autobiography

This is not a recommendation, as I know neither the book nor the author. But, I just got word of it via email, and thought it might interest some of you. (It also gave me occasion to create, after years of avoidance, “God” as a post category.)

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In the month of July we are pleased to offer you God: The Autobiography, a selection from our summer crop of Chicago Shorts.
Franco Ferrucci’s God: The Autobiography begins the story of his creation. But, says god, “I admit, right from the start, that it was foolish to create winter … for all my love of the light I still have my dark side. Winter wasn’t my only half-baked idea.” Ferrucci’s god is, in the words of Umberto Eco, “a supreme but imperfect entity” and the “extraordinary” story Ferrucci concocts is “religiously enlightened and orthodoxically heretical.” The god of this autobiography is a tender and troubled soul, in need of understanding companions—and readers.
Get your free e-book of God: The Autobiography during the month of July. Enjoy!
God: The Autobiography is a DRM-free EPUB, readable on a wide range of devices. All titles in the Chicago Shorts series are DRM-free with no artificial ingredients or preservatives.