Disorienting Clarity

About a year ago I read Diane Williams’s “Four In Prose” in Harper’s Magazine, and I could not get it out of my head. In her characteristically brief fashion, Williams uses all of fiction’s signposts but sends readers off into another dimension entirely where meaning hovers just beyond the brink of understanding. This is true to life of course, especially at the fringes of knowledge where we realize how little we really understand about why we’re here, and this is why we need belief.

williamsThis kind of writing is an acquired taste, I know. Most readers want story and character, something to hold onto and care about and enjoy. So do I most of the time, and what little other “experimental”writing I’ve read has left me cold, perhaps because it literally feels like an experiment. Once I grasp the set-up, the punch is all too obvious.

I immediately bought Williams’s collection Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty, which I treat like a treasured book of the strangest poetry. The pieces are all quite brief, few longer than a page or even a full paragraph, and they work best when you read them slowly and mull over the continuous stream of WTF’s that arise the more you try to make sense of them.

At the same time I was reading Williams, I was listening to Run the Jewels. A ton. Like almost exclusively, every day. I got into the group because I had been a long-time fan of Killer Mike (Dungeon Family Crew!) and obsessively listened to his album R.A.P. Music, but I find that El-P’s lyrics are the ones I would have to listen to again just to understand what had just been said. He is phenomenal. His crazily varied diction (“I was born conjoined to howlers of the siren age”) and cadence (“can’t be broke when you own gold rope/pawn shops offering cash for those/cash is fake though gold accrues/I make my own gold golden goose/run down yellow brick roads towards riches/just be sure to not trust no wizards/the golden age is gone now admit it/all that gold is not gold that glitters.”) are unmatched.

RTJBoom and booya! In an interview, El-P credited hip-hop with shaping his attitude, and attitude is about how you move through the world–it’s about how you think of things and approach them, and if we’re talking artistic attitude we’re talking mainly about aesthetic.

I have no desire to write tiny, confusing stories or to become a rapper. I have too much to say to do the former and I can only laugh when I imagine trying to do the latter (not to mention that by this point I’m way too old to get in the rap game). But I can try to be, in the inimitable words of El-P, an “I’m a ‘holy fuck what did he just utter’ marksman.” I already do it my way, in my own fashion as I strive to write taut pieces about a strange existence where Brooklyn rappers are really not that distant from avant-garde storytellers. Out.

Advertisements

Escaping Influence

A few weeks ago I wrote about my most recent writing’s similarities to Cronenberg’s body-horror flicks from early in his career, and the thought, once I’d put it into words, wormed its way all the way down the street to the library, where it forced me to borrow The Brood, Videodrome, and Naked Lunch. I’d never seen the first film, but I’d seen the latter two, and I still found Videodrome the most satisfying of the three.

In quickly becoming a Cronenberg aficionado–in fully acknowledging my once-dormant fandom, that is–I read and watched everything about him that I could, mainly because that’s just what I do when something strikes my fancy. (Recently a local film retrospective and the return of Twin Peaks has flipped the Lynch switch as well.)

Anyway, Dave (one comment I read referred to him as Uncle Dave, which I appreciate for so many reasons) switched majors in college from Biochemistry to English and ventured into film after realizing that he could never shake his two biggest literary influences, Burroughs and Nabokov. I find it so difficult to imagine being so immersed in the style and subject matter of someone’s work that I could not distinguish my own aesthetic outside of it, and what does it say that most of the themes in Cronenberg’s films still completely mirror Burroughs? It’s natural to get caught up in the purity of originality–and in a certain respect it’s necessary to kill your artistic ancestors in order to carve out your own distinct niche–and one way to do this, I guess, would be to switch media.

All of which made me wonder what came first for me, the screen or the page? I have always loved reading, but I have also always loved movies and have probably spent about equal time appreciating both mediums.

In a class I was teaching yesterday, a student asked what it was I liked about writing, and I had to pause before I could offer an answer. She only asked because she explained how she was terrified of writing and the formalities of the writing process, especially since in our class the result of this process will be graded, but beyond allaying her fears I tried to answer the question honestly.

“Everything,” I said, and I left it at that because it was getting late, it was the first day of class, and I hesitated to proselytize.

Of course, I could have gone on. I could have passionately expounded for hours about the mystery of discovery and the chance connections that can be made when you begin to put words on the page and let your mind wander through its myriad associations, influences, feelings, beliefs, fears, doubts, and hopes–none of which, if you truly lock into that wide-open creative space that emerges, will be anything but your own.

Rhythm, Sound and Sense

Words are fun. In an interview with Kendrick Lamar, the rapper talked about the pleasure of molding words to his own purposes, twisting them so that they rhymed or almost rhymed. Internal rhyme, end rhyme and rhythm are the backbone of rap and have been the site of the genre’s most noticeable innovations beyond, of course, the sonics.

In my own work I find myself more attuned to the rhythm and sound of words, and finding new combinations that work in terms of rhythm, sound and sense has become one of my chief aesthetic pleasures. Words. What fun!

A writer–I believe it was Annie Dillard–wrote that in order to write you must love sentences, and I have read countless interviews with writers who express their love and devotion to the craft of the sentence. I’ve long been in that camp myself.

Below are a few recent sentences that I’m particularly proud of:

At first glance the knobs looked flawed, like a cluster of clumsily blown baubles, yet their labyrinthine striated creases pulsed with the regulated rhythm of even breathing. The creature sensed China’s nearness and contracted just before she tore off the topmost lump, which she held up by her nose so that she could peer into its puckered folds.

By concentrating on nothing but the correct door and the stairway down to the next floor, she forced them to ignore everything except her guiding actions even though her own thoughts unwittingly crept in and arranged themselves into something like a curated display that the others had somehow already seen. Her thoughts had become theirs. The entire edifice of her mind—its plans, its intricate construction, its countless renovations—were as familiar as their own, even as they still marveled at what Neun knew, the way she understood this place and seemed to foresee everything, including the fallen ceiling at the foot of the stairs and how fast their hair would grow back in the fresh air.

Masters possessed a magnetism that attracted lesser-thans reflexively, even those with substantial evasive practice, and once caught a master’s thoughts prompted an addled daze of admiration where even the most mundane stray notions spun themselves into strands of glittering genius for the prolonged moment before the lesser-thans were pitched into the subservient sphere.

 

Constant Revision

John Steinbeck once wrote that you should not get caught up in the language or style of a piece but should instead just plow through and worry about fixing everything up later. As a practical strategy for just getting ideas on the page, this is excellent advice. In order for a story to work you must find out what happens, and it’s easy to lose your way when you’re spending all of your time mending the path.

My own process usually involves writing ideas down by hand, and these are by no means neat or even very voluminous. I sketch out plot points, ideas, quotes from pieces I think might serve as fodder for further thought about my project, and then I keep that in the back of my mind and get to work.

Still, there is nothing like mending to bring you back to your work when you’ve been away from it for a few days. The entire project feels foreign and you’ve forgotten how to wrap your head around it, but the seeming tedium of re-working a sentence or two situates you in the world of your work, allowing you to remember why this particular phrase within this particular scene matters. You remember what is at stake, and you remember all of the reasons you began the story in the first place.

Original: He flexed his neck and chest, grunting with red-faced strain, and his effort aroused whatever extra sense endowed him with mastery. Its force pulled Neun back, stretching her deformed shape into a wiry, taut length that slid across the empty lot despite her clawing at the concrete, and he had hold of her extended head when he suddenly let go. He reeled, his chest spasmed, and six arms burst forth from his sides, leaving ragged, fleshy rifts in his skin that sputtered blood while he screamed and frantically batted at the unwelcome limbs tearing his wounds open still wider. Stumbling, he fell to his knees, his stamina flagging, and the mess of flailing parts and fluids collapsed into a glutinous, inanimate mound.

Revised: He flexed his neck and chest, grunting, his red face straining, and his efforts aroused whatever extra sense endowed him with mastery. Its force pulled Neun back, stretching her deformed shape into a wiry, taut length that slid across the empty lot despite her clawing at the concrete, and he had hold of her extending head when he suddenly let go. He reeled, his chest spasmed, and six arms burst forth from his sides, leaving ragged, fleshy rifts in his skin that sputtered blood while he screamed and frantically batted at the superfluous limbs that ripped the wounds open still wider. Staggering, he fell to his knees, his stamina flagging, the flailing parts and pain being too much, and the whole fluidic mess collapsed into a glutinous, inanimate mound.

A Faint Signal Is Heard

When I opened up Processed Product a moment ago I had to wipe off a layer of dust at least an inch thick, but now everything seems to be in working order. The novel has been taking up most of my writing time, but in those moments when I’m stuck or I just want to air ideas and thoughts, I plan to do so here. So I guess what I’m saying is, get ready.

I have never thought of myself as a “fan” of David Cronenberg even though each of his films has stayed with me, more so perhaps than most others. They are nightmarish, but more importantly they’re visceral and gooey in ways that so many other films shy away from. Seeing “The Fly” once is enough to sear Jeff Goldblum’s disgusting transformation into your mind forever. “Be afraid. Be very afraid,” the tagline went. And let’s not even talk about “Dead Ringers.”

So it’s with a strange sort of recognition that I find myself writing passages like the one below, which comes from the chapter I’ve been hammering out for the past three months. The end is in sight, but getting the rhythm and the diction just right is increasingly important to me, and for some reason the details my mind conjures are increasingly disturbing:

He flexed his neck and chest, grunting with red-faced strain, and his effort aroused whatever extra sense endowed him with mastery. Its force pulled Neun back, stretching her deformed shape into a wiry, taut length that slid across the empty lot despite her clawing at the concrete, and he had hold of her extended head when he suddenly let go. He reeled, his chest spasmed, and six arms burst forth from his sides, leaving ragged, fleshy rifts in his skin that sputtered blood while he screamed and frantically batted at the unwelcome limbs tearing his wounds open still wider. Stumbling, he fell to his knees, his stamina flagging, and the mess of flailing parts and fluids collapsed into a glutinous, inanimate mound.

Huh.

Processed Product Top 4 of 2015

It has been a WHILE folks. In the time since I last posted, I’ve been as busy as a new father with a full teaching load can be, which has left me precious little time to write outside of the novel revisions I’ve delved back into. But if you know me, you know I like lists, especially year-end best-of lists.

2015 was a year of renewal for me, and I see this reflected not only in the stylistic choices I’ve been making in my writing but also in what I’ve read, watched and listened to. So, without any further mutterings,  here are Processed Product’s Top 4 Cultural Artifacts Consumed in 2015:

Ingmar Bergman’s Middle and Late Period Films

tumblr_m13j1c7ffr1rnk8yfo1_500

It may be cheating to include 10-15 (at least) films under one entry, but that best resembles how I watched them, a month-long self-imposed Bergman immersion program that had me practically speaking Swedish by early October. I watched or rewatched a span of his classics, ranging from 1957 to 1982, usually during the wee hours of the morning before anyone else was awake, and few films can match the intimacy and elegance–and occasional ferocity–of his best. His use of time and the human face reminded me that all else can be simple or sparse if image and character, the two essential filmic elements, are composed perfectly. My only regret now is that I will never be able to see any of them for the first time in a theater, where I imagine the experience of every one of of Liv Ullman or Max Von Sydow’s facial nooks and crannies would be even more pronounced.

Jamie xx In Colour

8f09545c

There were some great albums that were released this year (Kendrick!) and others that I revisited religiously (Coltrane at the Village Vanguard and the Stones’ Sticky Fingers), but the album that got the most play was Jamie xx’s nostalgic electronica album, In Colour. It has none of the usual trappings of contemporary EDM and was made, admittedly, as a kind of homage to UK rave. The album feels completely absent of pretension, which appeals to me even if the other artifacts that made my list aren’t exactly middle-of-the-road. In Colour feels like what it was like to be dancing at 3 a.m., ecstatic, with the whole future ahead of you, and the happy, hazy drive home with friends at dawn before you even thought about having to go to work later that afternoon. Hsu Hsu wrote a great piece in the New Yorker about the album, and focused a lot of attention on the influence of Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, a short film about UK dance culture over the last 60 years. An electronic music site gave the album a bad review, saying it wasn’t “hard” enough, but I don’t think that was ever the point.

Roberto Bolano’s 2666

61bahg8xtil-_sy344_bo1204203200_

2666  was the best (and biggest) novel I read this year, and it is the only work that made my mid-year best-of list as well. The scope and violence overwhelmed me, but it was one of the best reading experiences I have had in quite some time in that I kept turning pages and did not want it to end. Bolano creates a bloated fictional universe full of dread, fake history, and metaphysical connections that extend across time and space. Good fun!

Ranier Maria Rilke Selected Poetry

selectedrilke

I’ve had the book for quite a while now, and I’ve gone through periods of reading a poem here and there, but I recently starting reading the Duino Elegies in earnest and have fallen for their spiritual lyricism. In a time when so much of what claims to be mysticism seems canned because it lays out the ineffable too plainly, Rilke points towards it, using image and metaphor to expose and reveal but never assign. The result is a glimpse of “the real,” the kind of dasein or being that is at the heart of all philosophy and true art.

 

 

Hour of the Wolf (1968)

“A minute is actually an immense space of time.”

My favorite moment from Ingmar Bergman’s “Vargtimmen” (Hour of the Wolf) comes nearly halfway through the film. For the viewer, it is a test of faith offered by a artist assured of his craft who knows full well that time is the beating heart of film. Time is what makes the medium so magnificently absorbing, and a full minute passes in the film as we watch both characters’ faces. Alma (Liv Ullman) is uncomfortable because her husband is losing his mind, but that discomfort only translates to the viewer if you aren’t engaged by the story and the nuance of each actor’s movements, the subtle shifts in their faces, the light and shadows. The minute expands, a minute universe.

In Roger Ebert’s review of the film, he says the film “requires a creative act of imagination from his audience, the same sort of suspension of disbelief that Disney asks the kids to make for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” But the adults in the audience I observed didn’t seem up to the effort. They snickered and whispered and made boors of themselves.”

I watched it alone in the dark at 2:00 am, and was mesmerized and haunted. Like Bergman’s best works, there are scenes that leave indelible impressions–the corpse in the castle, the witch who first approaches Alma, the murder of the young boy, the dark forest stream where Johan (Max Von Sydow) finally disappears.

Since my daughter was born almost three months ago, I’ve made my way through a good portion of Bergman’s oeuvre.  I still haven’t gotten to many of his earliest works aside from “Summer With Monika” and “Smiles of a Summer Night,” but my favorites films are (naturally) the weirdest or most brutal: “Virgin Spring,” “Through a Glass Darkly,” “The Silence,” “Persona,” “Cries and Whispers,” “Fanny and Alexander.”

Hour of the Wolf doesn’t have nearly the same emotional heft of his later films, but it tests the limits of his art in other ways. Johan, fully cracked, looks at his tormentors in the castle: The mirror has been shattered. But what do the fragments reflect?”

We can only try to make sense of them.

Revisiting “Mulholland Drive” (2001)

The true mark of a great film is how long it stays with you after it ends. You wonder about it and replay it in your mind’s eye–the opening shot, the ending, the scene that was lit and framed so beautifully, the score. A great film will also hold up to repeat viewings, though for many films that is neither necessary nor desired because the initial impression is so deep and lasting.

The first time I watched David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” was on a laptop screen, yet I was still so desperately caught up in the tense, escalating madness that leads Betty/Diane to off herself in the film’s final moments that the closing shot felt like a gift of release. “Silencio.”

Since then, I have watched the film a handful of times, fearing that it could lose its power with too many repeat viewings. After about the third or fourth viewing, the plot became more clear–a dream populated by the various characters and images from Diane’s memories as she tries to sleep off the guilt she feels for having her lover killed. Diane is jealous, insecure, and feels betrayed by the leading lady who, in true movie star fashion, can’t help it that everyone falls in love with her.

A few nights ago I saw it on the big screen for the first time, and its beauty and  thematic preoccupations crescendoed in my mind like the chorus of a Roy Orbison tune. It may have helped that it was late at night and I was operating on caffeine and little sleep, but I walked away with an unshakable belief in its greatness.

Every Lynch obsession is offered to us (coffee, large curtains in empty rooms, tracking shots, benign and innocent interactions recast as sinister ones), and they are supported by a sustained, crisp style unmatched by the rest of his oeuvre. The primary colors pop, the reds and the blues, because DP Peter Deming chiseled out each shot like a sculptor.

mulholland-drive

And once you piece together the surreal elements, the story is simple and timeless. The film is about the dream of revising the past and reimagining life as a movie in which you are finally the lead actress and you are eternally innocent, full of the eager hope that first inspired you to pursue your dreams.

The story is as quintessentially American as Jay Gatsby’s, and just as tragic. Dream all you want. You will never regain your innocence, you will never regain your past.

Working Title: Mystery 1.0

Yes, dear readers, I understand that my working title could use more imagination, but I figure I have to write the story first before I start thinking about a snappy title. So, you’ll just have to accept it for now and hope the story is interesting enough in its own right.

For the past seven or eight months I’ve been on a mystery kick, and I am going to try my hand at a new story since posting here is the best way to stay (loosely) accountable to a drafting schedule. Not that I haven’t been writing.

Enjoy!

Mystery 1.0

Nothing remained but the ash that swirled around the bent steel frame of what was once a car. All Mickey Benneker wanted to do was see the damage the fire had done. He had watched the news all week and wore thick boots that kept out most of the heat that still radiated from the earth. At the height of a fire’s powers it could boil the water in the ground, drawing out the steam like a conjuror desperate to prove herself under the eye of a wakeful master.

A cool dawn breeze scattered more of the ash, and Mickey made his way to the trailhead. He had always thought of fire as the ultimate glutton, eating everything in its path until forced to stop by earth, or water, or man. He lit his own fires in a kiln in his backyard and once, when his landlord was away, he dug out a pit and made a bonfire. It rose ten feet high and he watched it burn all night, well after his friends had finished all of the beer and taken off. He had collected sticks and brush for weeks, yet he still used all of the wood that was in the shed, which, according to the stipulations of his rental agreement, he had to replenish at his own expense. The next day he took his truck to the store where the bagboy helped him tie down a full cord, and when he got home he passed the pit every time he walked by with a bundle. Just to see what would happen, he threw the last log in, surprised when it started smoking on the still-hot embers.

Mickey could never have been a firefighter. He loved it too much; he would rather see it come to its natural end. That, and he never could manage to pass EMT training.

Something in the dirt caught his eye, a flicker of white against the blackened earth, and he bent down to examine it. A tooth. Whether human or animal, he couldn’t say. It was sharp, and chipped. If it were human, it would have to be a canine. Our only proof that we should eat meat, he thought. He fingered the tooth, polishing off some of the dirt with his thumb, and put it in his pocket.

Processed Product’s 2015 Mid-Year Best Of List

Today’s cultural acceleration leaves me completely unmoored. Step away from the current for less than a second and the frenetic wash of conversation has already gone down to the sea and is evaporating, only to reform again upstream so that it can rush back to the the sea once more, quickening, and ever faster. Time and tide waits for no man.

This is true only up to the point in which you simply take it. Time that is. (And tide too for that matter, which is intended to be synonymous, the original meaning being more like season or while, e.g. yuletide.) My will is strong, and if I’m just getting around to reading a book published in 1940, I shouldn’t have to answer to deathless time. He gets to read the entire book of life while I only get one word at the bottom corner of page 313,609,093 (from what I understand, it’s going to be a multivolume work).

So here they are, the top five cultural artifacts I took time for during the first half of 2015.

dead

Fare Thee Well: The January announcement of the Grateful Dead’s final go-round with the core four instantly generated two thoughts: 1) Big cash grab; 2) I need to scrounge up whatever money I can to buy a weekend pass and a plane ticket to Chicago because I know the experience will be the closest I could ever come to a Dead show. Thought number two never materialized, but my wife and I attended night one of a simulcast at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom, and it brought a smile to my face. Critics–Hell, even the president of the United States–have acknowledged the Dead as pioneers of a uniquely American songwriting and entrepreneurial aesthetic, and American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead are held in high regard by fans and non-fans alike. The band is a shambling bunch of elders who still rock and roll, and even if it was a cash grab (which, what could be more American?) they took their blaring, chugging steam engine through Jack Straw’s Tuscon, around down and out jailhouses, past mosquito rivers with children clapping hands, all while still managing to go through the occasional tunnels that inexplicably wormholed into transcendent deep space. Weirdness is still alive and well.

imagesTo Pimp A Butterfly: A hip-hop masterwork with braggadocio and insight in equal measure that also speaks to the current moment and the experience of being black in America. Kendrick Lamar wrote the album after seeing the wider world outside of Compton and realizing it was filled with the same ignorance, ferocity, and injustice that he saw in the ghetto, and he tries to deliver a message, however imperfect, that is meticulously crafted and deftly artistic. On “Momma” he raps about knowing everything–“I know street shit,I know shit that’s conscious”–and it’s not just posturing. He’s taken the message from the underground, the one that never sold that many records nor appealed to mainstream rap fans, and repackaged it for the street, reaching far more listeners with positive messages about community and self-worth.

indexInherent Vice: P.T. Anderson’s 2014 film led me to the book, which was one I’d let pass by despite the heaps of praise it received in 2009. The book was rollicking, playful Pynchon of the long, drawn-out sentences and shambling, shaggy dog conspiracy plots that ring close to home and make you reflect on how things might actually be all connected, and the film lovingly depicts the tone of the book with every character expertly cast and every scene expertly composed. It’s film directed by master based on a book written by a master, and it’s one I’ll return to because there are scenes you can live in.

2666-bn2666: Every now and again I task myself with a big one, a door stopper of a book that requires devoted attention. I knew Roberto Bolano only through the short stories he’d published (and continues to publish despite his death in 2003) in The New Yorker and elsewhere, but I’d read enough about 2666 to know that it stood as his magnum opus, a sprawling postmodern novel. I am 2/3 of the way through, and wading past The Part About the Crimes is overwhelming. He inundates the reader with death after death, all with a journalist’s detachment that occasionally spins itself into the fabric of a story. I find myself glossing over the horror of the growing number of the dead women he describes, unable to stomach another description of decaying corpses and violent crimes, and hoping for another narrative thread to grasp onto. That may not sound like pleasant reading–which it’s not–but it is utterly compelling.

farewellFarewell My Lovely: Raymond Chandler’s novel stands as a favorite from the detective novel bent I was on for a couple of months earlier this year. There’s a reason Philip Marlowe still stands as the archetypal detective, and the book is nothing but character, plot and description–in other words, straight fiction. Chandler can encapsulate entire characters with one description, and the book is often funny.