Friday, December 26, 2008

On New Order's "Run"

"Answer me," begins New Order's "Run," the song that threaded itself through my head during my last months at my old job. "Why won't you answer me?"

I liked New Order as a teenager; 1989's Technique (on which "Run" makes its home) was the last album of theirs to hold my interest. Now that song was in heavy mental rotation, as it never had been before, outlasting all the theoretically more exciting youngbloods. I want to find out why.

In 2006, things were going downhill at the office and everyone knew it. People were jumping ship at alarming rates; more alarming was the number forced to jump. "Run" isn't quite an office song—not the way Fountains of Wayne's "Hey Julie" ("I've got a desk full of paper that means nothing at all") or the Modern Lovers' "Government Center" ("a lotta lotta lotta nice desks and chairs, uh huh!") are explicitly about the joys and terrors of the workaday word.

But "Run" was my theme song, and I didn't even know what it meant. It has the virtue of being intimate yet ambiguous, and the music is a thrilling mix of guitars and machines. Even the title is up for grabs: a directive to flee, or simply to hit the treadmill? The lyrics are among the most potent in the New Order canon, admittedly a songbook in which much sounds tossed off (a trait I admire).

Maybe it takes fifteen years of not hearing the song—of being swept along by the airtight weave, or not thinking about it at all—but "Run," I'm realizing, is a horror story of sorts, an incident of amnesia in the corridors of power: "I don't know what day it is or who I'm talking to." It's not far from there to the land of This is not my beautiful house/This is not my beautiful wife. "I can't recall the day that I last spoke to you." A guitar figure just this side of sour tears through it all again and again. There is tremendous violence—and freedom—in this line: "You work your way to the top of the world/Then you break your life in two."

The epigraph to Personal Days comes from "Run"; that last couplet seemed appropriate for a book in which the brutality of downsizing was dramatized in the broken structure itself—the voice changing, dramatically, twice.

The penultimate verse seems to hold a measure of hope—"I haven't got a single problem now that I'm with you"—but do we believe the speaker? (The last line, tellingly, is "What do you want me to believe?")

I'm getting the sinking feeling that the singer is talking to a ghost—or the singer is a ghost, just like in New Order's story-song "Love Vigilantes."

Without giving too much of Personal Days away, I'll just say that the idea of the ghost in the machine is significant, if not central to the novel. Quick sample from the book: "Our machines know more than we do, Pru thinks. Even their deficiencies and failures are instructive...."

New thought about the title: Is "Run" a command for a computer—or from one? And what is the program?

—from Book Notes at Largehearted Boy, July 2, 2008

Video directed by Robert Frank:

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"Authors Pick the Best"

A massive graphic novel called "Bottomless Belly Button" -- I'm not going to tell you who wrote it, because that was part of the experience -- arrived in the mail incognito, and the cover didn't name the author, or at least not in a way that was immediately legible. I opened the book and did not recognize the style -- scratchy, intimate, sad. (Later I would learn that I had indeed seen some of this artist's work online, but I didn't make the connection at first.) I read on and tried not to read too much, tried to savor this familiar yet odd chronicle of nuclear family meltdown, with one of the members -- the artist's stand-in? -- depicted as a frog. I wanted to ration "BBB" like Charlie Bucket does with his chocolate bar. I couldn't help myself -- I kept reading, small revelations everywhere, thanks in part to this accidental anonymity.

—Louisville Courier-Journal

"Books We Love"

A single page of Don Paterson's collection of aphorisms, "Best Thought, Worst Thought," contains enough philosophical conjecture, elegant bile, and cold hard truths (or facile lies) to power three regulation-length novels. The misanthropy on display here alternates with humor, or simply merges with it ("You've made a blog ... Clever boy! Next: flushing"), making for irresistible sampling. Some of the aphorisms read like surreal microfictions ("Sex is better in dreams as the prick has an eye"), others like entries in a journal intime. Just when he has you chuckling, he'll whip out a line that reads like a freshly translated fragment from a distant epoch ("Imagining the worst is no talisman against it"). You get the sense that Paterson both stakes his life on every sentence and wants to distance himself from it almost before the ink has dried, and these impulses give the book its perfect rhythm. As he puts it, "A style is a strategy of evasion."


"A Year in Reading"

covercoverReviewing two very good rock and roll novels - Martin Millar's Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me and John Darnielle's Master of Reality - I finally cracked open Lewis Shiner's Glimpses (1993), an amazing, sustained performance, which I savored over the course of a month or two - the chapter as nightcap. In contrast, I basically inhaled the University of Chicago Press's three republished Parker books by Richard Stark. They came in the mail one day; I opened up The Outfit, just to see what it was like (I was very busy and had no time for pleasure reading), and read into the wee hours. A few chapters in, I realized I'd started with the second book in the series, but it didn't matter. There was simply no stopping me. After it was over, I read The Hunter and The Man With the Getaway Face. Now I'm just waiting for spring and the next batch of reissues.

—The Millions, Dec. 11, 2008
A Year in Reading: Ed Park

Saturday, November 22, 2008

I Think I Need a New Heart

Mulholland Drive began with a car crash, then inscribed the statuesque blankness of Laura Elena Harring's Rita with Hollywood dread; the new hostages-and-hankies drama John Q. also gets things rolling with automotive disaster, and when Harring materializes a few scenes later, the optimist may feel a certain dream-state tingle before she reverts to anonymity. What lingers is the dread. The movie is The Negotiator refashioned around Helen Hunt's "fucking HMOs!" outburst in As Good as It Gets, with Denzel Washington and a team of alpha males on hand to offset the hysterics, not to mention the Larry King Live-caliber discussions on the sorry state of medical coverage.

When economically beleaguered family man John Quincy Archibald (Washington) can't get his suddenly dying son, Mike, onto the heart-donor waiting list, he grabs a gun and locks down the ER. "This hospital's under new management now," he announces. "Free medical care for everybody." The hostages—including James Woods's transplant surgeon, a truth-to-power medical resident, a pregnant woman, and a soul brother—develop severe Stockholm syndrome, and as news spreads about what "John Q." represents, his implied last name forms a sea of support surrounding the wall of blue. (And when he vows, "I will not bury my son—my son will bury me," as police multiply outside, the line echoes journalist Peter Noel's immortal cover-line challenge in these pages: "If a cop kills my son, I will kill the cop.") The reiteration of Mike's blood type, B-positive, is hardly subliminal in its prescription for hard times.

After a sinuous, irresistible turn as Training Day's heart of darkness, Washington is in default dignified mode here. He capably embodies the hero's transformation from doughy dad to man of action, amid the movie's shameless button-pushing and cheap religious overlay. Though better acted than Extreme Measures (surgeon Hugh Grant discovers where spare parts really come from), and with a broader social vision than Untamed Heart (Christian Slater gets simian thumper, Marisa Tomei), John Q. represents a creative dead end for the organ-transplant movie, a genre that perhaps begins at the height of glory with Eyes Without a Face.

The Village Voice, 2/19/02

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

"Guided by Voices"

I. Pythagorean Theorem
The twin spirits of Sigmund Freud and L. Frank Baum, both born in May 1856, preside over Mladen Dolar’s invigorating and elegant new study A Voice and Nothing More. The father of psychoanalysis and the children’s fantasist par excellence each published his most famous book—The Wizard of Oz, and The Interpretation of Dreams, respectively—in 1900, and brought to the public’s mind, intermittently at least, the curious nature of that most common yet elusive of human expressions.

In Baum’s dream-redolent story, the wizard (Oz himself, “the great and terrible”) wields power through his voice—now thunderous, now calm—while a screen conceals his frail body. Dolar devotes a whole chapter of his book (part of MIT’s Zizek-curated “Short Circuit” series) to “Freud’s Voices.” The classic analytical model, the analysand lies on the couch and speaks, with the (silent) analyst out of sight. The analyst, he writes, “assume[es] this silence as the lever of his position, thus turning the silence into an act.” In other words, the analyst’s silence becomes as potent as the wizard’s booming voice, almost magically directing the flow of the patient’s speech, shaping it, imposing interpretation.

Through a Lacanian ear-horn, Dolar listens to the way the voice (“a bodily missile which has detached itself from its source…yet remains corporeal”) has asserted itself, or evaporated, over the centuries, and thrillingly arrives at the very root of philosophy itself. Both the Baumian and Freudian setups, for example, owe something to the idea of the acousmatic voice, the “voice whose origin cannot be identified.” (“I am everywhere,” Oz tells his audience.) Michel Chion first elaborated on the concept in 1982’s The Voice in Cinema—tracing it back to the mother’s voice, heard omnidirectionally in the womb—and Dolar notes that the word (acousmêtre) has its roots in the Acousmatics—per Larousse, “Pythagoras’ disciples who, concealed by a curtain, followed his teaching for five years without being able to see him.”[61] This practice enabled them to concentrate on his voice in the absence of his body, the better to concentrate. If Pythagoras is indeed history’s first philosopher, then from the beginning philosophy has concerned itself with the split between mind (for which voice will substitute) and body.

It’s Toto, Dorothy’s dog, who accidentally tips Oz’s screen, revealing the “little man,” in reality a mere ventriloquist. Like a cultural dogcatcher, Dolar chases down another pooch with an even more iconic relation to sound: The gramophone-listening Nipper, whose depiction eventually became the logo for HMV. As Nipper (who died before he was painted) searches for the ghost in the machine, the illustration solves the problem of how to depict sound graphically. (The shattered glass of “Is it live or is it Memorex?” might be a close second.) “The acousmatic master is more of a master than his banal visible versions,” Dolar writes, and we might note that Nipper first appeared in advertising in that Baumian, Freudian year of 1900.

Other highlights from this brief but dense cultural history include the hiccoughs that interrupt Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium, the concept of the “voice of reason” and the voice’s persistent superior status to written law, and why Stalinist leaders sometimes sounded like they didn’t understand what they were reading.

II. The Portable Carrie Bradshaw
Once you read Dolar, your ears turn into satellite dishes, picking up signals from all over the culture. What does it mean that some of the most popular TV shows today, like Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy, frame each episode with voiceover? Is this laziness, à la Adaptation and real-life screenwriting coach Robert McKee, or does it tap into each viewer by simulating her own “voice of reason”? Does it function as a built-in variation on DVD commentaries (in which aural marginalia stands in for secret knowledge)? (And why is it that, as I type these rhetorical questions, I “hear” them the way viewers heard Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw recite generalizing sentences from her column in Sex and the City, the show that started kicked off this recent trend?)

III. Pull My Jetée
If Freud and Baum are twins, a similar case might be made for Jack Kerouac and Chris Marker. Robert Frank’s 1959 film Pull My Daisy (featuring Kerouac’s hilarious, shaggy-dog narration) and Marker’s La Jetée (1962) clock in at 26 and 27 minutes; hoary relics of slightly different avant-gardes, both films were finally released on DVD this year. Various Beat players appear in Daisy, but Kerouac is outside it, providing all the words (indeed, none of the sound from the set is recorded at all), slipping into different characters’ voices from time to time, veering from (“The Lower East Side has produced all these strange, gum-chewing geniuses,” he has Allan Ginsberg muse) to Dada-ready riffs. (A pan over a kitchenette elicits a catalog oof roaches, ending, “Chaplin cockroaches, peanut butter cockroaches! Cockroach cockroach! Cockroach of the eyes! Cockroach, mirror, boom, bang—Freud, Jung, Reich.”)

Marker’s science-fiction tale couldn’t be more different. Still photos pass before our eyes, and the squawking looseness of bohemian life is miles away from La Jetée’s ruined post-WWIII setting, where a crucial experiment is taking place underground. Likewise, the voiceover sounds like that of a stern god (despite the advent of time travel, chronology remains tragically fixed) rather than of Kerouac’s playful Pan. But think of the new subterranean worlds that might emerge if you laid the nearly synchronous soundtrack of one atop the other.

IV. The Empty Orchestra and the Drowsy Chaperone
“Karaoke makes no one marginal,” write Zhou Xun and Francesca Tarocco in their recent book Karaoke: The Global Phenomenon (Reaktion). As opposed to the godlike quality of voiceover (or in-the-know DVD commentaries), then, karaoke (literally “empty orchestra”) sounds a little like democracy. (On Broadway, the musical The Drowsy Chaperone is introduced and narrated by “Man in Chair,” a devout fan of the gleefully formulaic ersatz-’20s entertainment we’re about to see—but essentially a spectator like us.)

Xun and Tarocco turn up some curious facts (Japanese magazines feature karaoke etiquette columns; “90 per cent of the Filipinos sing well,” according to one leader) as they dutifully chart the phenomenon’s rise worldwide, but too many dull anecdotes clog the narrative, and the authors lack Dolar’s incisive way with connections. Karaoke is both exhaustive and already out of date. It doesn’t cover the hypersuccess of a program like American Idol (essentially karaoke to the millionth power), which has found a strange mutation in two new television programs, The Singing Bee (CBS) and Don’t Forget the Lyrics! (Fox). Unlike Idol, these shows emphasize knowledge over emotion; contestants need to sing the right words to chestnuts of various genres.

Passionate vocalizing adds entertainment value—but then so does out-of-tune wailing. Neither determines whether you take home the purse. (You could probably just recite the lyrics.) A flubbed line in Idol can be salvaged by inspired improvisation, but on these shows you get sent home. Interestingly, though these contests would seem to eliminate the hierarchy of voice over writing (which Dolar asserts in his “Voice of Ethics” chapter), in the end they maintain the status quo. Though logically the challenge would be the same if competitors wrote out the words to “Fortunate Son” or “Have You Seen Her?,” few televised challenges outside of Final Jeopardy have a written component. The title of The Singing Bee alludes to its spelling-bee format, but this reminds us that a spelling bee isn’t simply a spelling test. The vocal component is theater—but theater is the only thing worth watching.

When words elude the contestants of Don’t Forget the Lyrics!, they try to commune with the collective memory by riding the rhythm, searching for the great jukebox in the sky or their own internalized iTunes playlist.

VI. Blending bloodlines of greatness
I caught both of these singing shows on TV, but I caught much more of them on YouTube, that brilliant Library of Babel that elevates fresh paradigms on a weekly basis. On YouTube, you can find Wizard People, Dear Reader (2004), a beautifully sustained voiceover creation by Brad Neely. (Neely is now best known for “Washington, Washington,” his viral rap cartoon in which the father of our country is imagined to be multiply endowed.) In Wizard People, Neely recorded a commentary track for the first Harry Potter movie; going beyond the fizzy snark of Mystery Science Theater 3000, he took the time to craft an actual character, an older-sounding Potter fanatic who actually has nearly all of the facts wrong. This leads him to invent backstory, mangle names, and generally turn J.K. Rowling’s universe into his own. (Further adding to the textured confusion, he apparently thinks he’s recording some sort of audiobook.)

Recall Kerouac cataloging unseen cockroaches, and then marvel as a flotilla of dragonflies (at the start of ““Chapter 28”) launches this non sequitur, an elucidation of the unseen that is actually a fabrication of what is not even remotely there: “Harry is totally disinterested in the next challenge…as his mind’s eye daydreams. He sees himself dressed as a conquistador…arriving on the coast of an undiscovered America. He mingles peacefully with the natives, and trades secrets of magic with their shamans. He makes friends, blending bloodlines of greatness…He learns to slay deer with laser beams from his eyes.”

Though Neely hasn’t done voiceover recently, he’s attuned to the dementedly “contaminated” pleasures floating around YouTube, mildly illicit shorts like a series of redubbed G.I. Joe PSAs (the originals were shown with Saturday morning cartoons of yore) and snippets in which a James Earl Jones soundalike reconceives Darth Vader as a total jerk. “I like the stuff that feels like the fruit of a good idea instead of the stuff that feels like an audition piece,” Neely tells me.

“Sometimes I want to buy the rights to a forgotten movie and redub it,” he says. “But maybe not. I think that half of what makes voiceover work so delicious is the theft. Somehow the taking is part of the thrill, in both making and seeing. If you buy the rights, you take the sweet out of the dessert.”

Synching your voice—or voices—to megabucked cultural product is pirate karaoke, now with a web-ready reach greater than the film or show being reimagined. This impression of anarchic energy holds true as long as we forget that these pieces flourish under the benevolence of the Google-owned YouTube.

VII. Coda: Dummy Text

Every emission of the voice is by its very essence ventriloquism. —Dolar

You’re the only thing about him that seems to have a soul. —Mary to Otto, ventriloquist’s dummy, in The Great Gabbo (1929)

He became a fanatic about the mysteries of the East. He believed you could separate a man from his soul. —a former assistant to the hypnotist/ventriloquist known as the Great Virelli, in Devil Doll (1963)

Occasionally the doll will say something that you have not heard before. —Dennis Alwood, consultant on the film Magic (1978), speaking about the “spontaneous schizophrenia” that all veteran ventriloquists have experienced onstage

In bicameral men…volition came as a voice that was in the nature of a neurological command, in which the command and the action were not separated, in which to hear was to obey. —Julian Jaynes, On the Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

—Ed Park

(Original version of piece that appeared in Modern Painters)

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A note on Wendy Lee's HAPPY FAMILY

“Lee’s sure-footed debut locates the raw nerve connecting two social phenomena—China’s one-child law and the adoption of Chinese babies by American parents. Hua, Lee’s stranger in a strange land, speaks in a soft but firm voice from the ineradicable margin.”

—Ed Park, author of Personal Days

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Sure Thing

In this satire, everything is an object lesson—even sex

By Ed Park

Petroleum Man

Friday, July 18, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke's Down-to-Earth Legacy

The revered author, who died Wednesday at age 90, could step from the edge of science fiction into metaphysics.

By Ed Park

In Carter Scholz's 1984 epistolary jeu d'esprit "The Nine Billion Names of God," an author named Carter Scholz submits a curiously familiar tale to a science fiction magazine. "Plagiarism occurs in science fiction as elsewhere," the incensed editor replies, "but I've never before seen anyone submit a word-for-word copy of another story, let alone a story as well known as Arthur C. Clarke's 'The Nine Billion Names of God.' "

In Clarke's original 1953 classic, Tibetan monks use a supercomputer to sort through permutations of characters to arrive at the name of God—at which point, in an elegantly chilling sentence, the universe ceases. The writer in Scholz's amusing cover version claims to have developed a random-text generator that, to his shock, spat out a verbatim copy of the Clarke story.

Seriously equating Clarke with a form of divinity surely would not have pleased the author, who died Wednesday at age 90 and left explicit instructions that no religious ceremony accompany his death. (For good measure: In what was possibly his last interview, in BBC Focus magazine last December, he said the greatest danger humanity faced was "Organised religion polluting our minds as it pretends to deliver morality and spiritual salvation.") Yet he was one of the genre's presiding deities, a member of the Golden Age's "Big Three," who still cast their shadows across the field. (That trio's other two members, Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, predeceased Clarke.) Scholz's dizzying little tower of a story can be read as a tongue-in-cheek take on the anxiety of influence, inventively recycling and repeating other tales—not just "The Nine Billion Names of God," but also Asimov's "The Last Question," Borges's "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" and another Clarke text, "The Longest Science-Fiction Story Ever Told."

For all Clarke's hard-SF bona fides -- background in physics and mathematics, chair of the British Interplanetary Society, inspiration to scores of astronauts, thinker-upper of geosynchronous orbit, etc.—a ghost in the machine lingers, a persistent aura of mysticism. Most famously, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which featured the menacing, omniscient spacecraft computer HAL. In "The Nine Billion Names of God," the supercomputer imported from New York to Tibet hastens the quest for knowledge and expedites the end of everything.

Science and magic

Locus magazine marked Clarke's 90th birthday recently with testimonials from fellow writers, a brief reminiscence by Clarke and a reprint of the aforementioned Focus interview, which he concluded with the line for which he'll be remembered for as long as there is remembering: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." That maxim has the ring of scientific truth to it: These words will reach my editor's screen as swiftly as if viewed through a crystal ball in Oz. But one might detect a cautionary tone in that line, or even a secret atavistic wish. Indeed, in Clarke's work, advances can look an awful lot like regression. At the end of "2001," astronaut David Bowman transforms into the Star Child.

'Childhood's End'

Clarke judged Childhood's End to be the finest of his nearly 100 books (along with The Songs of Distant Earth). It was published in 1953, the same year as "The Nine Billion Names of God," and both works begin in science and dissolve into metaphysics. Childhood's End (at least in the original version; a new beginning was substituted in 1990) kicks off with some Conradian scene-setting ("It was quiet here beneath the palms, high up on the rocky spine of the island") and an escalating space race between America and Russia (the latter team led by an engineer named Konrad). Then giant alien spaceships hover above the Earth's cities—their mere presence implies a power far greater than that of any nation, or of mankind as a whole. The possibility of war vanishes (Clarke was writing this not too long after World War II), and we never see these characters again.

It's a brilliant prologue, a sucker punch to rattle the reader's complacency. Our assumption of what this book might be about—militaristic SF—vanishes in about the amount of time it takes for humanity to realize that it's not the center of the universe, not even close. The spacecrafts are like Swords of Damocles, their unseen inhabitants (the Overlords) the last word in passive-aggressiveness. By refusing to lash out or even punish the small but vocal minority of disgruntled humans, the Overlords emphasize the planet's insignificance. In the meantime, freedom from want is established, cruelty to animals abolished.

When the seemingly benevolent Overlords finally reveal themselves, they turn out to look like traditional depictions of the devil, a legacy of some distant and disastrous visit—and this is just the start of further mind-bending revelations. Childhood's End is a true novel of ideas, an inquiry into what happens to human nature in the face of utter futility. Clarke balances the cosmic scope with an intimate, often epigrammatic voice. All of mankind's religions fail in the face of the more advanced Overlords, but ultimately the new chain of command is a surrogate belief system, just as messy and senseless. Was Clarke simply giving us a few more of the nine billion names of God, an elaborately imagined self-destruction kit? Supremely enigmatic, Childhood's End bears an unusual prefatory note that seems appropriate for the man who created those memorably mysterious monoliths: "The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author."

Los Angeles Times, March 20, 2008

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Last Men Standing

By Ed Park

Kurosawa & Mifune
July 26 through September 12 [2002] at Film Forum

"I did a scene where I had to kill 30 people at once," Toshiro Mifune remarked about Akira Kurosawa's Sanjuro (1962), one of 12 offerings in Film Forum's seven-week "Kurosawa & Mifune" series. "I was young then, but I thought my heart would explode." Though most identified with the ronin sword slinging of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961), Mifune at his peak was never just a pretty face or an action hero; physically imposing and able to unleash vortices of rage, he could also accommodate more nuanced vigor—conscionable deception, soul-deep laughter. In Kurosawa's hands, he was grandly human: not just vanquishing bandits but grappling with the dictates of fear and the maddening logic of responsibility.

The legendary director (1910-1998) didn't discover his legendary actor (1920-1997): Mifune, who came to Toho Studios looking for work as cameraman ("I don't want to be an actor. I don't want to have to rely on my face to make money"), had already received top billing in his very first picture, as a gangster in 1947's Snow Trail. In their first true pairing, Drunken Angel (1948), Mifune is a tubercular yakuza eaten up by disease and his own gang, in a literal Tokyo backwater that breeds mosquitoes, a repository for the detritus of squandered lives. Though there's an overload of illness as metaphor, Mifune ably locates the tragic tone, and Kurosawa favorite Takashi Shimura (best known as the lead in Ikiru) is wonderful as the gruff but caring doctor. For Stray Dog (1949) Mifune replaces hoodlum swagger for the panicked despair of a stammering military vet turned cop whose stolen gun has been used in a series of crimes; monitoring the status of the Colt's seven bullets is both snappy noir scorekeeping and a foretaste of Seven Samurai's body-bag accounting. Realizing the killer is a fellow ex-serviceman, whose rampage was triggered by the theft of his knapsack, the humiliated Mifune acknowledges both his connection to the criminal and the necessity of moral choice. (Stuart Galbraith IV, in The Emperor and the Wolf, his massive new book on the director and star, writes that the demobbed Mifune was so poor after the war that he took his two air-force-issue blankets and made them into a suit.)

Also included from this fertile era are Kurosawa's justly famous jidai-geki, or period pieces. Despite its imposing castle set and lavishly armored players, Throne of Blood (1957) is less an epic than a gorgeously concentrated nightmare, a Noh-inflected Macbeth that subsumes Mifune's capacity for subtlety into its darkling scheme, the way the omnipresent fog swallows warriors and woodland alike. (The new print intensifies Throne's crepuscular, death-haunted milieu until it treads upon the border of the unreal.) The following year's The Hidden Fortress consequently feels all the more luminous, giving full CinemaScope to the ripping yarn of a disguised princess, Mifune's loyal general, bumbling farmers, and hidden treasure. And the jaunty, cynical Yojimbo, with its Mancini-land score and Mifune's itchy mercenary, is enjoyable if a bit one-note; the better sequel, Sanjuro, manages to be both lighter than air and ultimately more serious than its predecessor, giving more time to the camellias that give Mifune's Sanjuro his name than to the blink-and-you'll-miss-it showdown.

Back in contemporary dress, The Bad Sleep Well (1960) is Kurosawa's unofficial Hamlet, an intricate revenger's tragedy that doubles as a critique of corporate corruption. Opening with a bravura wedding sequence and ending with a sycophantic bow to a replaced telephone receiver, the film has its longueurs, but Mifune's buttoned-down avenger is a compelling portrait of righteous obsession foundering on unpredictable reality. Three years later, Kurosawa adapted an Ed McBain novel for the brilliant High and Low. Mifune is Gondo, an up-by-the-bootstraps shoe company exec who lives high above the city. Learning that his son has been kidnapped, he's prepared to pay; when it's discovered that the wrong boy's been nabbed, the kidnapper insists that Gondo pay up anyway. Though some prefer the original Japanese title (Heaven and Hell), High and Low maintains the altitudinal relation (the villain is a denizen of the city's lower depths, most vividly depicted in the nighttown of "Dope Alley") while suggesting the brows of its bisected narrative: The first hour is a taut moral drama; the second, a nail-biting tale of detection. (As in all these films, Kurosawa's trademark "wipes"—still used by George Lucas—give the stories a page-turning rhythm.) High and Low contains the series' single transgression from carefully composed black-and-white: a startling stream of pink smoke shooting out of a distant incinerator that signifies the chase is on.

There is no color in Red Beard (1965), Mifune's final collaboration with Kurosawa, though director and star experimented with various dyes and bleaches. Mifune is the eponymous doctor, head of a clinic for the poor, willing to break some bones (with physician's precision) to rescue a sick girl trapped in a brothel. The film is a bildungsroman (heartthrob Yuzo Kayama is the arrogant young physician who comes to share Red Beard's philosophy), an extended treatment of Kurosawa's ongoing concern with life seen through the lens of sickness, and a deft weave of numerous plotlines that add up to a Dickensian microcosm so rich one doesn't care to leave.

Mifune—and perhaps Kurosawa—would never reach such heights again. With slight exceptions, the actor's career would run on fumes, sinking to the ignominy of playing Lou Diamond Phillips's Eskimo father; his once proud form would succumb to Alzheimer's and other medical problems. Red Beard is a last stand, with Mifune's doctor-hero an argument for compassion, fallible but unstoppable, and radiating something like pure charisma.

The Village Voice, Tuesday July 7, 2002

Saturday, February 16, 2008

"The Outsiders: John MacGregor Unlocks Henry Darger's Unreal Realms"

John MacGregor has been on every page of Henry Darger's novel. There are 15,145 of them.
photo: John MacGregor

Permit me to be terrified.
—Klee on Van Gogh

What do we want from Henry Darger? Born in Chicago a century and a decade ago this month, the consummate outsider artist and writer is the subject of a monumental new book by his posthumous Boswell and indefatigable champion, John M. MacGregor, and of two exhibits at the American Folk Art Museum, which opened its Henry Darger Study Center this month. Virtually anonymous in his daily life, he has become, in the years since his death in 1973, an index of our fears and ambitions, an alchemist, a litmus test, an urban legend, a cautionary tale. Some records from the Lincoln Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children, where he passed most of his teenage years, give his name as "Henry Dodger"—a fitting slip for this most elusive of culture heroes. The nature of the labyrinthine, practically infinite work he left behind has bred countless misconceptions, and has lent everything in his narrow life—from his career as a dishwasher to his meteorological obsessions—the flavor and inevitability of myth.

Darger lived most of his life on the north side of Chicago, spending his last 31 years at 851 Webster Avenue, in a large third-floor room. The artist Nathan Lerner bought the building in 1956. Lerner was a photographer and educator associated with Moholy-Nagy's New Bauhaus in Chicago, as well as the product designer responsible for the first sponge mop and the honeybear bottle. His enduring legacy, however, has its roots in the kindness he showed toward his aged, reclusive tenant, whose presence some of his younger residents didn't exactly cherish. Lerner (who died in 1997) kept Henry's rent low, even knocking off a quarter of the $40-a-month tab at Henry's suggestion.

"Henry considered Nathan a guardian, a father," says Lerner's widow, Kiyoko (who holds the copyright to Darger's works). Henry always addressed him as "Mr. Leonard," and Kiyoko thinks that his obsessive Catholicism made him avoid saying the Jewish name. The Lerners once threw him a birthday party, and helped him find a nearby nursing home toward the end of his life, when the trek up the stairs became too much. Yet for all the years he lived under their roof, they never knew of his double life, let alone predict his future fame.

The story used to end—or begin—like this: After Henry died at the nursing home, Lerner and one of the other tenants started to dispose of the contents of his amazingly cluttered apartment, wisely stopping upon discovering hundreds of paintings, beautiful and unspeakably strange, bound in huge books. The scroll-like compositions were unlike anything ever seen before, antic with nightmare weather, enormous flora, and young girls sporting penises. Along with vibrant storybook vistas were scenes of discomfiting (if masterfully orchestrated) violence: Men known as Glandelinians subjected the children to strangulation, blasphemous crucifixion, and anatomically accurate evisceration. Also in the room, packed in trunks, was more than a half-century's worth of writing, including the sub-rosa magnum opus that his artwork illustrated. (At 15,145 pages, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion—or the Realms, for short—is the longest known work of fiction ever written.) Our entry into Darger's private world is a matter of luck, then, and marked with the guilt of trespass.

This is the original sin as I first heard it, more or less, in a lecture MacGregor delivered at the American Psychiatric Association's 1995 conference in Miami; it also appears in numerous articles (a Times headline from '97 ends, "Secret Until Death"), as well as in the first English-language book devoted to Darger (Michael Bonesteel, 2000). But MacGregor's 720-page Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal (Delano Greenidge Editions)—the product of 12 years of research and writing—puts forth a revised standard version. His room was opened, and his oceanic creation uncovered, while Henry was still alive at the home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor; when told about the discovery, he said, "It's too late now."

MacGregor wants to know: Too late for what?

Henry Darger is an improbable, wrist-wrecking page-turner, and John MacGregor is, in a profound sense, a mystery writer. In six books and numerous lectures and articles, the 61-year-old art historian and former psychotherapist has helped define the field of outsider art—a province that sometimes seems overrun by backwater visionaries and Magic Marker graphomaniacs. But in choosing his subjects, MacGregor leaves the freak show behind and articulates the mystery of what such creations might mean to their creators. He has noted that "factors other than the purely aesthetic must be involved if I am to write; puzzling questions must emerge from a creative process under extremely unusual circumstances."

Hence his attention to the drafting-board fantasias of Achilles Rizzoli, architectural assistant to God; the incest-laden needlework of an early-20th-century psychiatric patient known as the Lace Maker; and (in Dwight Mackintosh: The Boy Who Time Forgot) the obsessional figurations (and strands of indecipherable cursive) of an autistic septuagenarian. His unpublished monograph The Flowers of Spirit-Land deduces the provenance of a collection of progressively more intense flower paintings that eventually bloom into full-fledged abstract expressionism avant la lettre (1863)—an art-historical cul-de-sac inhabited and abandoned by a Spiritualist in the grip of automatic painting.

None of these cases, though, is as vast, as saturated with wonder—and as prone to public hostility—as the life and work of Henry Darger. "I have been so fortunate to study him in peace and quiet," the media-averse MacGregor tells me, "away from the frenzy that is now developing around him—actually sitting in his room getting to know this man who no one ever knew."

The path to that room began in Montreal, where MacGregor was, born. His father worked for the railroads as a welder; his mother was a secretary for the United Church of Canada. An only child, the young MacGregor developed an intense interest in painting, setting up his own studio at 13, and still has that muscle memory when he looks at what's on the canvases at the museum, a sense of how the brush must have moved.

He entered analysis at 18, abandoning painting around the same time; later, he completed a training analysis and did research stints at such venerable psychiatric institutions as Topeka's Menninger Foundation and the Hampstead Clinic in London, where he knew Anna Freud. (He recently began his third tour through all of her father's collected works—an activity, he jokes, that he performs every 20 years.) After studying art history at McGill, MacGregor went on to Princeton, where he initially kept under wraps his curiosity about the juncture of psychiatry and art. But his adviser—the legendary Chinese-art scholar Wen C. Fong—convinced him otherwise. Though he finished his dissertation, The Discovery of the Art of the Insane, in 1978, over a decade passed before it was published. Despite the lapse, it was hailed as a landmark when it appeared—the first scholarly study of both notorious "mad" artists (like the parricidal Bedlamite Richard Dadd) and public attitudes toward insanity and creativity.

By the time Discovery appeared, MacGregor had already entered the Realms of the Unreal, as Darger called his fictional world. In 1986, a museum curator flew him to Chicago to introduce him to Nathan and Kiyoko and their singular trove. Enraptured, he wrote Nathan a letter eight days later, expressing his desire to undertake long-term research with an eye to writing the first book on Darger. "Nathan had looked for years for somebody to cover Darger—psychiatrists, critics—but nobody was prepared to commit the kind of time that was needed," says MacGregor. "I was the first person to come along who was really willing to put in some time."

Henry Darger: "It’s too late now."
David Berglund

Gaining their trust wasn't easy. Kiyoko Lerner recalls that at first, "Nathan felt John was very academic," and perhaps not the best person to capture "the conflict between God and Henry." But MacGregor's persistence paid off; he says that after assuring Nathan that he had no intention of tracking down any possible Darger relations—which might have meant contesting the rights to the artwork—there were no more obstacles to his access. MacGregor grew close to the couple. An interview with Nathan forms Henry Darger's foreword, and MacGregor was visibly moved last month when he heard, moments before his talk began, that he was in fact about to deliver the American Folk Art Museum's inaugural Nathan Lerner Annual Lecture. (One of the first slides he projected, as chance would have it, was a snapshot of him and Lerner.)

Maintaining his home base in San Francisco, MacGregor would take the train to Chicago once or twice a year, for a month or two each time, house-sitting whenever the Lerners went on a trip. He would come armed with a specific research goal: "I'd go to the room, copy out what I needed, and then go home."

This enforced distance helped him stay afloat in the sea of Darger's writings, which, he argues, are written with skill, imagination, and even occasional humor. (MacGregor's book includes numerous excerpts of Henry's writing, which bear this statement out; most startling is the character/creator interplay—pure Don Quixote—as when an Angelinian colonel discovers the writings of one Henry Darger.) No discussion of the paintings can afford to ignore this narrative, or Henry's own complex psychological makeup, which infuses every part of the story—from the gruesome, protracted warfare to the dragonlike creatures known as Blengins. Aside from the reams of the Realms—13 immense volumes, densely typed—MacGregor had to contend with Darger's 5084-page autobiography (History of My Life), a 10-year daily weather journal, assorted diaries, and a second work of fiction, provisionally entitled Crazy House, of over 10,000 handwritten pages. (Written after the Realms, it takes that epic's major characters—the seven Vivian sisters and their companion/secret brother, Penrod—and places them in Chicago, with the action unfolding during the same years as that of the earlier book.) MacGregor estimates that he's read two-thirds of the Realms, scrutinizing certain sections in their entirety, and methodically scanning the rest for any significant plot or tonal surprises. "I've been on every page," he says, and notes that a thorough reading would have required a full year per volume.

For psychiatric purposes, the material is of an unusually pure grade. MacGregor points out that Darger generated far more sheer wordage than one would find in the verbatim transcript of 10 years of psychoanalysis. Indeed, the Realms' basic conflict—between the monstrously evil Glandelinians, who enslave and torture children, and the Angelinians, whose Christian goodness is epitomized by the seven brave Vivian sisters—practically demands this treatment. In his fictional world, Darger was able to achieve an astonishing psychic split, so that the demands of the glands were in epic struggle with codes of angelic morality. Has there been a better model of the constant conflict between id, ego, and superego?

The central wound of Darger's life was the loss of his mother, who died of puerperal septicemia right after giving birth to his sister. Darger was not yet four; the sister was put up for adoption by his harried father, who would eventually give up raising his increasingly unruly son. Darger never knew, or claimed never to have known, his mother's name (or his sister's); MacGregor has discovered that it was Rosa or Rosie—and also that Henry was in fact her third child. (The previous two may have been illegitimate; it is also possible that Darger's parents were not legally married.) MacGregor's detective work yielded information on Darger's admitting physician and diagnosis ("self-abuse"), and he sheds light on the atrocious conditions at the Lincoln Asylum, where a truly grotesque scandal broke out during Darger's stay: a child ravaged by rats, a doctor who died after attempting self-castration, a teacher who used inmate corpses for anatomy lessons, referring to the deceased by name.

The boundless violence of the Realms starts to become more explicable; the inhumanity reads like sublimated reportage. Poring over MacGregor's meticulous and moving study (the endpapers are photos of Henry's room), one thinks of the beginning of The Good Soldier: This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

At the start of the first Nathan Lerner Annual Lecture, entitled "The Aronburg Mystery: Murder in the Realms of the Unreal," John MacGregor warns the audience that graphic details lie ahead, and says, "Feel free to leave if you find it more than you wish to put up with."

No one bails, though several listeners shake their heads during particularly stomach-churning patches. In his lecture, MacGregor explores the connections between the disappearance of Darger's photo of Elsie Paroubek, a girl who was kidnapped and murdered in Chicago in 1911, and her counterpart in the Realms, the child martyr Annie Aronburg. Both girls, real and fictional, are conflated with Darger's real sister—and with the fictional, orphanage-destroying tornado known as "Sweetie Pie," whose story overtakes the last 4878 pages of Darger's History of My Life. Patiently building up his argument, MacGregor proposes that the Glandelinians' obsession with disemboweling children has its roots in the young Darger's loss of his mother due to his sister's birth. Their attacks on the inner body can be seen as repayment in kind. The horror takes on a tragic cast.

All the violence in Darger's work helped refine MacGregor's concept of the artist. "That stuff is scattered all over the Realms, so I was hitting it for years," he says. "I think the most important thing it did was to make me take very, very seriously Darger—to stop seeing him as a folk hero or something, and realize that this was a man with pretty serious problems. No question he could have been dangerous."

Chicago-area scholar Michael Bonesteel, who edited and introduced Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, recalls meeting MacGregor in the mid '90s while researching their respective books. "I think he considered himself the senior scholar," he says. Though they agree on a number of points, Bonesteel objects to "his take that in his heart Darger's a serial killer. . . . I think there's no question that he has a mental illness—but I don't really think it's as severe as perhaps Dr. MacGregor would see it."

"Is John MacGregor a controversial figure?" asks Brooke Davis Anderson, director and curator of the American Folk Art Museum's Contemporary Center, who has worked closely with MacGregor in establishing the Darger study center. "Yes. Because in his public speaking about Darger, he often presents him as a known murderer and pedophile. And these are things that we don't know." But Anderson admits that she hasn't actually heard these accusatory lectures; rather, "the controversy has been born mostly out of a feeling by audience members that it's unfounded and that it's a bit inflammatory."

But has MacGregor ever made such claims? He denies it. At the "Aronburg" lecture, he read aloud from a 2000 Times article by Sarah Boxer: "Mr. MacGregor has suggested that Darger murdered her."

"It bluntly states that I thought Darger was a kidnapper and murderer of Elsie Paroubek," he says, his frustration audible. "I've never made such a wild and unprovable statement." He then cites and dismisses a Wall Street Journal piece for a similarly misleading take.

Journalists sometimes like the pose of knowledge as much as the knowledge itself (perhaps explaining why one of the Realms' fictional Henry Dargers is a reporter). In a 1997 Slate piece, for example, Larissa MacFarquhar dismisses MacGregor thus: "Despite the fact that virtually nothing is known about Darger's inner life, MacGregor (typically, for a critic of outsider art) writes confidently about how compulsive Darger was. . . . MacGregor careers from the vulgar Freudian to the idiosyncratically bizarre—for instance, 'The trauma of [Darger's mother's] death was represented in his later life by an obsessional preoccupation with weather.' " She writes confidently about how nothing is known, when in fact Darger left behind a virtual report card of his mental state; what's vulgar is her knee-jerk reaction to anything with the whiff of Vienna.

That same year, Time's Robert Hughes attacked a statement by MacGregor ("psychologically, Darger was undoubtedly a serial killer"), calling it "a wildly irresponsible judgment, since practically nothing is known about [Darger's] character, and in any case, he never harmed a fly." It is Hughes's verdict that is wildly irresponsible—first for not pausing to consider the meaning of "psychologically," and second, for assuming intimate knowledge of a life he in fact knows little about. (As a boy, Darger did, in fact, exhibit a marked aggression toward younger children, and once slashed a teacher seriously enough that his father had to foot a hospital bill.)

I think something curious and heretofore unacknowledged has been taking place, an unconscious disavowal on the part of some viewers and critics—a phenomenon that could make for a chapter in The Discovery of the Art of the Insane. Through misquoting, mishearing, and misreading, people have turned this careful scholar into a veritable Kinbote, a moral scapegoat to whom can be assigned all the darkest theories—as if he were the one who had applied the delicate wash of watercolor blood at the base of a severed head, or imagined the force-feeding of body parts to children. What do we want from John MacGregor? Perhaps this: to saddle him with all our deepest anxieties about the possible actions of Henry Darger, so that the madman-scholar can be rejected with a show of presumptuous indignation. It is the secret expiation required to enjoy Darger without tears.

Anyone who has read MacGregor's Discovery is aware of his sensitivity and impeccable scholarship—then again, as he points out, the book was reviewed mainly in psychiatric rather than art publications. His shorter pieces exhibit an immense sympathy with the mentally handicapped. He says that studying Darger has made him "a slightly more accepting person—accepting of myself, accepting of others, accepting of Henry." Rather than judge Darger on moral grounds, MacGregor seeks to understand the whole person—the art and the life, the consumable colors as well as the anguished cogitations of the most desperate loneliness.

What he does find morally objectionable is the traffic in outsider art, including Darger's. "I have nothing to do with dealers, and all that kind of business," he says. "This art was not created for the purpose of being sold or bought—it was not created to be art at all. The wishes of the artist should be respected."

When one curator I speak with suggests that MacGregor has toned down his previous indiscretions for his Darger tome because "he has a book to sell," I'm reminded that he only grudgingly agreed, at the behest of his lawyer and publisher, to take any royalties on Henry Darger. (The book, completed in November 1997, has had a tortuous road to print: legal wrangling with Kiyoko Lerner, and the dismay of publishers who would not consider bringing it out unless he drastically cut his thousand manuscript pages. "I was clearly hopeless about it," he says.) In the past, he's given his royalties on books to Creative Growth, an Oakland program that teaches art-making to disabled adults. This is a frugal man, who at times seems to have an almost holy regard for art's existence outside of commerce. It's no coincidence that the copyright page bears Henry's incantation:

All the Gold in the Gold Mines

All the Silver in the world

Nay, all the world,

Cannot buy these pictures from me.

Vengeance, thee terrible vengeance

On those who steals or destroys them.

Occupying pride of place at the American Folk Art Museum's main Darger exhibit, in a vitrine by the foot of the crucifix-shaped space, is the sole remaining spine from one of the three books in which Henry Darger originally bound his paintings. The paintings were cut free by Lerner, in order to be exhibited more easily. What's left on the bone are scraps of color: tantalizing shreds of landscapes, part of a child's head.

As Brooke Anderson explained at a Darger symposium in March, it's "symbolic of future research." If Darger is the tree falling in the forest that happened to make a sound, then this is the trunk, an invitation to dendochronology: by matching the detached artworks to the stubs, an order can be established for the creation of at least some of the paintings.

In Chicago, Darger's room was maintained (with some alterations) until 2000, when Kiyoko Lerner decided to sell it to Michael Lerner, a real estate developer who is Nathan's son from his first marriage. The room's objects—from the boxes of paints and old National Geographics to the fireplace tiles and sink—were acquired by Chicago's Intuit center, which plans to re-create the space. If Darger's native city gets the shell, then New York has acquired the pearl: the written and graphic material, which form the basis for the Henry Darger Study Center. Kiyoko Lerner had negotiated with several other institutions, including Atlanta's High Museum of Art and the Milwaukee Art Museum, before reaching an agreement (also in 2000) with the American Folk Art Museum. According to Anderson, the museum bought 26 paintings for $1 million and received the archive as a gift from Lerner, with the understanding that it would be conserved and available for scholars. It contains all of Darger's written material (50,000 pages), which will be available on microfilm in the fall, and a trove of 3000 pieces of graphic ephemera, including the salvaged scraps that served as Darger's ur-material: depictions of girls from magazines and comic strips, which he painstakingly incorporated into his compositions.

Brooke Anderson says the museum is looking for two doctoral candidates, one in art history and one in literature, to become fellows at the center. ("Someone who likes to read!" she says.) The main tasks will involve marrying the images to the text and developing a catalogue raisonné; given the plethora of material, countless other projects await. Lytle Shaw recently published an essay (in Cabinet) on the moral accounting found in Darger's weather journals, and Michael Bonesteel is helping prepare an abridged edition of Darger's novel, a project that he predicts will take years.

As for MacGregor, he's leaving the field of outsider art entirely, after finishing a book this year on the mechanomorphic art of Frank Travis, a schizophrenic Canadian artist. "I've done what I wanted to do," he says of his sojourn along the border of the mind and what it makes, and through the realms of Henry Darger in particular. "I don't want to repeat myself. I'm walking away from the match, after I've just won Wimbledon." At 61, it's not too late for him to return to his other passion, East Asian art and archaeology; the Han dynasty awaits, as does a trip lecturing on the Orient Express. And so the man who never entered the room at 851 Webster without saying "Hello, Henry" is at last bidding farewell.

—Village Voice, April 17 - 23, 2002

"Shadow and Act"

“I’ve just checked the number of your Google hits, and read your Wikipedia entry,”[296] runs a frank greeting in William Gibson’s “Spook Country.” This is what translates as fame today: a foothold in the ether, an identity composed by a faceless committee of unknown size. Gibson famously coined the term “cyberspace” in his reality-crashing, paradigm-shifting 1984 debut, “Neuromancer,” and his conception of its “consensual hallucination” rings more true than ever, over two decades later, as we pursue terminally framed existences teeming with hyperlinks and blogs, worlds of warcraft and second lives.

The Googlee in question is Hollis Henry, singer for a defunct ’90s cult band (perfectly named The Curfew) and now a journalist working on a story for a shadowy magazine, Node, that hasn’t put out an issue yet. (It’s variously and hilariously described as a would-be “Wired,” generating sub rosa buzz by its very anti-buzz.) Cults, shadows, secrets: in other words, Gibson country. Hollis is in the mold of Cayce Pollard, the logo-allergic “coolhunter” of Gibson’s previous novel, 2003’s “Pattern Recognition.” Both of these appealing heroines—curious, charismatic, and essentially chaste—share DNA with Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas, all of them women on the verge of nerve-wracking conspiracies in which “possession of information amounts to involvement.”

The ostensible topic of Hollis’s article is a holographic artist who painstakingly constructs virtual-reality celebrity death scenes at their actual locations. Things quickly escalate, and she finds herself ploughing the dark in search of a nebulous shipping container. The artist explains to Hollis how his project suggests that “the world we walk around in would be channels” if everyone had her own VR helmet, tuning in only to what she wanted to see. (“We’re all doing VR, every time we look at a screen,” he says—Gibson has axioms to burn.) “Spook Country” overlays two other frequencies, two other protagonists, the connections between the three channels initially unclear. Milgrim is a code cracker and addict dependent on Brown, a violent man who might be CIA; their quarry, Tito, is a Cuban-Chinese (“indeterminately ethnic”), a preternaturally limber young man whose family has roots in counterfeiting and intelligence and whose actions are guided by the spirits of Santería. Needless to say, everyone’s questing for the enigmatic container, wherever it might be.

“Spook Country” is an oblique sequel to “Pattern Recognition,” or better yet its antic anagram, expanding themes and re-upping a few characters. Here again Gibson gives us a present (more precisely, early 2006—Tower Records lives!) in which the skies are the color of steel, no matter the city, and the outlines of a chaotic future can be discerned. Sentence for sentence, few authors can equal Gibson’s gift for the terse yet poetic description, the quotable simile—people and products are nailed down and blissfully lit as in some platonic ideal of the catalogue. An ex-bandmate now rocks a “Bladerunner soccer-mom look," a “Bluetoothed bouncer” patrols a bar, and when Gibson registers a “delirious surge of graffiti, a sort of street-fractal Hokusai wave,” the phrasing is itself a delirious surge of pleasure-center prose.[100]

Still, mystery abounds, myriad paranoias pulsating underneath the immaculate surfaces. (Hollis sometimes visualizes a “Mongolian Death Worm”—the “mascot” of her anxiety—burrowing beneath the dunes of her consciousness, not to mention nodding to the amplified annelids of Frank Herbert’s “Dune.”) Gibson continues to unofficially tout all things Apple, but in “Spook Country” this product placement has a twist: iPods are used to ferry deceptive data, and at one point Tito imagines what would happen if you could “crack its virginal white case like a nut, and then draw forth something utterly peculiar, utterly dire, and somehow terrible in its contemporaneity.” Even the sleekest products can host demons, crackling with as much potential malice as the anonymous-looking container at the heart of this story.

Hollis learns that “Node” magazine is a project of Hubertus Bigend, the zeitgeist-infiltrating force behind Blue Ant, a Belgian-based advertising enterprise that calls itself the “first viral agency,” except when it doesn’t. “He doesn’t want you to have heard of him,” one of his minions tells Hollis, and he operates on the principle that secrets “are the very root of cool.” The irony is that readers of “Pattern Recognition” have already heard of him, and there’s something deliciously sinister in the fact that it’s the antihero who forms the most obvious link between Gibson’s two most recent books. In the earlier novel, Bigend funded Cayce’s search for the source of haunting film fragments appearing on the Web; here we learn (spoiler alert) that he successfully harnessed that sublime (whose online scholars represented “the first true freemasonry of the 21st century”) to sell shoes.

Googling “Hubertus Bigend” in real life leads you to a discussion board where Gibsonites muse, a bit futilely, on the significance of his somewhat scatological name. This reviewer wonders if his odd moniker is an allusion, or at least a fortuitous parallel, to a minor character in another labyrinthine book concerned with (among other things) art and imitation and money, by another William G.: William Gaddis’s “The Recognitions” (1955). When Bigend explains his philosophy to Hollis by saying “Everything is potential,” she responds, “Everything is potential bullshit.” In Gaddis’s book, the odious Recktall Brown collaborates with an art critic to deal in expensive forgeries, including paintings by one of the book’s few true artist, Wyatt Gwyon (who only, alas, paints in the manner of the Old Masters). For all of Gibson’s lavish products, he’s given his main moneyman a name that resonates with the toilet. Anything that can be sold instantly loses its cachet, a point brought home again when Bigend suggests to Hollis’s ex-bandmate Inchmale—another adult-toy name—that they sell a Curfew song for a Chinese car commercial.

To follow the flow of “Neuromancer,” with its vigorous, carpet-pulling tempos, you have to read the landscape for clues. As the titular character (or cipher) says, “In the patterns sometimes you imagined you could detect in the dance of the street. Those patterns are real.” Was “Pattern Recognition” itself a titular homage to “The Recognitions”? The title—the concept—drives the reader to enter into a state of apophenia, defined by Cayce’s father, Win, as “the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated things,” a gift Cayce also has. Should we pay special attention, then, to the fact that a late-arriving adventurer in “Spook Country” is described as resembling William S. Burroughs—as is Win (who’d gone missing after 9/11) in “Pattern Recognition”?

More apophenia: Inchmale has retired to Buenos Aires; this year, New Directions published a 45th-anniversary edition of Borges’s “Labyrinths” with an introduction by Gibson, in which he calls the Buenos Aires native’s book a “singular” milestone in his reading life. It’s a collection in which books are the seeds for nightmares and vice versa, and every passage is lined with mirrors. (Perhaps the most potent Web prophecy before “Neuromancer” is Borges’s 1949 story “The Aleph.”) Despite its thriller trappings, “Spook Country” is a puzzle palace of bewitching proportions and stubborn echoes. Hollis’s band was the Curfew, which means it’s time for you to come inside.

—originally published, in slightly different form, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 5, 2007

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"The Oblique Case"

The Oblique Case:
A Note on
Y. Cheung, Business Detective

“My work otherwise might make a good magazine article, but—” He sighed.
—Harry Stephen Keeler, Y. Cheung, Business Detective

But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
—Vladimir Nabokov,
Pale Fire

The tale of detection embraces contests of mind; the more devilish the design, roughly, the more successful the mystery. Perhaps the same impulse in the human imagination seeks out both puzzles and stories. Strange, then, that the “serious” reader should balk at fiction that seems cross-bred. A story that engages our sense of play is reduced to a toy—or worse, a machine, coldly contrived to spit out a result. The artifice is too apparent, and the writer is deemed an egghead (or a fool). Can such works be anything more than glorified parlor games?

This note concerns a single such parlor game, as played by two writers rarely mentioned in the same breath: Harry Stephen Keeler and Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov. They were rough contemporaries, with the latter’s years transposed about a decade forward. Their legacies could not be more dissimilar: recent Nabokovian garlands include a biography of his wife and a second celluloid version of Lolita, while Keeler’s work remains obscure.

Stylistically they are at opposite ends of the spectrum, if not the universe. Even Nabokov’s interview responses read like prose poems, whereas no Keeler creation would be complete without stunningly awkward descriptions and breathless dialogue that barely has time to reflect upon itself. (It is possible we cherish one writer for his scruples, the other for his shamelessness.)

Y. Cheung, Business Detective
(1939) and “The Vane Sisters” (written 1951; first published 1959) appear to be as different as their creators. The former is a novel about a Chinese American sleuth who takes on, as it were, two cases—one professional, the other cryptogrammatic. In Nabokov’s dozen pages, a professor of French learns of an acquaintance’s death, and reflects upon her theories of undead communication.

We are startled, then, to find at the heart of each story a “death message”—and to discover that both unlock to the same key.

Y. Cheung, Business Detective is the fourth movement in the Marceau case. Its pages constitute Keeler’s last significant reworking of that bizarre cause célèbre. Though not his best-known title, it belongs to his most dazzling constellation. The fact that Cheung is the character to write “absolute ‘finis’” on the mystery suggests that we need to read Cheung in order to comprehend fully Keeler’s vision of the Marceau case.

Avoiding webwork jargon, we can split the tale in two. Story A is straightforward (if enjoyable) detective fare: Y. Cheung, “Locator of Business Leaks,” travels to Indianapolis at the behest of an old college friend, whose father’s construction company has been consistently underbid by its rival. The solution turns out to be a literal take on our hero’s title. Indeed, the same can be said of the word “solution”; the very words are loaded.

This plotline has a complication: Cheung’s grandfather has died, but his fortune will go to a cousin unless Cheung can do something so meritorious (within a week, naturally) that the family name will appear in 1000 newspapers. And in a vintage HSK catch, Cheung’s employer, Milford Harven, has publicly stated his belief in the superiority of the white race—and thus forbids Cheung to be credited, should he successfully plug the leak. (On a personal level, however, they get along just fine.)

Story B, enfolded in A, is entitled “Strange Romance”—the second of two short stories that André Marceau purposefully plagiarized in the weeks before his death. In a passage so convoluted as to be almost meaningless (and described so rapidly as to approach shorthand), it is explained how Marceau’s rendering of “Strange Romance” fell into Harven’s hands. Soon Harven sends the “Death Script” to Cheung, an amateur cryptographer. If Cheung succeeds at his day job, Harven says, the MS is his to keep.

Initially baffling, “Strange Romance” is a fairly preposterous piece of science fiction that stops a more agreeable story in its tracks. Gyles Kew, son of a famous astronomer, travels to Arizona upon his father’s death, and gazes at a verdant world galaxies away, through his father’s super-powerful telescope. He spies a beautiful woman, who occasionally dons a helmet; she displays three oddly decorated cards that correspond to those of an earthly Tarot deck.

Gyles falls in love with her, and is about to perform an experiment in celestial telepathy—when he is informed that, given the speed of light, her image is already a hundred years old. In an amusing touch of self-consciousness, Keeler has Cheung critique the story; he judges the style “so exalted that at times it is absolutely stiff-necked.” His interlocutor (a chief at a wire service) finds the story a “smoothly running, normally running tale”—but Cheung knows better. The unnatural prose (nonexistent locales, forced expressions, needless exposition) has led him to throw out a few red herrings and deduce that certain words were placed with acrostical intent. In an admittedly somewhat arbitrary fashion, Cheung isolates the first letters or words of the first 59 [FOOTNOTE 1] (and last 8) paragraphs to derive a final Marceau morsel—the murderee’s prediction of his own death. It concludes, “In the light of this fact, if my death ever occurs inexplicably there should be—of mystery—nothing whatever.”

And so the very words are loaded; a plagiarized potboiler has been altered; a dead man speaks. If we detect a spiritual shudder, we can keep in mind that the Book of Lamentations is acrostically configured[FOOTNOTE 2], or the popular (if unlikely) belief that the Greek word for fish unfolds as “Jesus Christ, the son of God, the Saviour,” thus explaining that particular Christian symbol. [FOOTNOTE 3]

Precise and dazzling where its precursor is slack, “The Vane Sisters” could fit seven times over within the confines of “Strange Romance.” On a gleaming spring day, the unnamed narrator, a professor, runs into D., a former colleague. D. mentions that Cynthia Vane, sister of Sybil, has died of a heart condition. The married D. had once conducted an affair with Sybil, who had been a student of the narrator’s. After D. broke off the affair, Sybil killed herself, but not before taking a disastrous French exam. On the last page of the booklet, she scrawled a suicide note, part of which read: “Death was not better than D minus, but definitely better than Life minus D.”

Told of Cynthia’s recent passing, the narrator muses on her “ingenious fancies” and “fondness for spiritualism.” She believed that the ghosts of dead friends shaped her living days; she saw meaning in puns and printer’s errors, and even encouraged a friend to pursue a “statistically insane” typo (“hitler” for “hither”) within old books. After a terrifying bout of insomnia, the professor merges into a slumber “full of Cynthia.” He seems about to experience whatever paranormal doings she once subscribed to; he is on the cusp of believing. But daylight banishes the night’s phantoms:
I could isolate, consciously, little. Everything seemed blurred, yellow-clouded, yielding nothing tangible. Her inept acrostics, maudlin evasions, theopathies—every recollection formed ripples of mysterious meaning. Everything seemed yellowly blurred, illusive, lost.
This final paragraph feels somehow unsatisfying, a vague conclusion to the previous perfectionist’s prose. But what the narrator doesn’t realize—and what the reader, hopefully, does—is that the Vane sisters, from beyond the grave, have in fact played a hand in the structure of his thoughts, in the very writing of “The Vane Sisters.” Taking the first letter of each word, we find an explanation to the whole story: “Icicles by Cynthia, meter from me, Sybil.” (Even reading it now, separated from the story, sends chills up the spine.) They have invisibly dictated content and form.

Nabokov eventually dismissed “The Vane Sisters” as something of a curio, but his dismay at its rejection by The New Yorker suggests more than cursory interest on his part.[FOOTNOTE 4] For its 1975 publication, he wrote: “This particular trick can be tried only once in a thousand years of fiction. Whether it has come off is another question.” Today it occupies the penultimate slot in his Collected Stories, where it can be read as a distillation of his art. It melds the metaphysical and linguistic concerns that inform all his novels, and that will flower freakishly in his masterpiece, Pale Fire.

The acrostical finish to “The Vane Sisters” is aesthetically justifiable (whether or not we find it successful); Nabokov has taken care to make the story thematically of a piece. Marceau’s acrostic, by contrast, delivers a thrilling jolt that nevertheless feels cheap.

The solution stamps the book as the latest ingenious take on the death of that notorious anti-nanist—but what does it have to do with the rest of the book in which it resides? A natural response might be to shake one’s head and mutter, not for the first time, “Keeler!” But upon reflection, the book seems more carefully wrought, its heterogeneity (15 chapters of A, then 14 of B, followed by 21 more of A) less a clever detour than an integral part of the story. A possible solution presents itself if we consider Cheung as a reflection on race.

As even a casual Keelerite knows, HSK populated his novels with Asian characters and lore (real or ersatz). Though he often slung slurs (and not always ironically), he remained fascinated not only with Eastern culture but with the tricky position of cheng-fong-gwai—ethnic Chinese who, having been brought up in Western society, are alienated from both cultures. (Of late, variations on this racial catch-22 have been a staple of “Asian American” fiction; it’s interesting that Keeler staked out this territory decades before its overdevelopment.) Y. Cheung, hero of his own story, is not only drawn with empathy, but also seems more fully realized than the typical Keeler protagonist—the bland WASP equipped with interchangeable first and last names.

Keeler sidesteps stereotypes to show, rather deftly, Cheung’s divided status. His mental acuity and good nature do nothing to prevent the casual, even unwitting insults of others. (The “color line” exists in Indianapolis, where Chinese are seen as laundrymen, waiters, or tong savages.) He doesn’t quite fit in.

To see how cheng-fong-gwai-ness explains “Strange Romance,” we must take a look at some eyes. Enough times to bear mention, HSK describes Cheung’s visual apparatus as “oblique”—a softer synonym for “slanted” that also means “indirect.” [FOOTNOTE 5]

It’s an unusual, even elegant word choice. Outside of its anatomical use, it suggests many things: HSK’s kaleidoscopic, multimedia approach to the death of André Marceau; his elusive attitude toward Asian people and culture; and the structure of Cheung itself. [FOOTNOTE 6]

For “Strange Romance” feels oblique, indirect, off the topic; it stands apart from the primary plot—not unlike the way Cheung, the cheng-fong-gwai, stands outside both white American and Chinese society. If we are to integrate Story B with Story A, then, we must show how Cheung loses his own solitude. The answer is love. [FOOTNOTE 7]

The Marceau Case and X. Jones—of Scotland Yard, in addition to being home-grown modernist tours de farce, are exceptional in the Keeler canon in that they dangle no girl as prize. She is back in place for The Wonderful Scheme of Mr. Christopher Thorne, a more conventionally told tale, and Cheung. One of Harven’s suspects is the secretary, Loa Marling, who is half-white, half-Hawaiian. By the latter inheritance, she claims Korean, Malayan, and Chinese blood, and her eyes have a “bare suggestion of obliquity.” Cheung, attracted and conflicted, speaks to her outside the office. To allay her fear that he’s a private investigator (and not “George Lee,” civil engineer), she asks him the probing question: “What—what is the neutral axis of—of an I-beam?” (Answer: “the entire planar cross-section lying at right angle to the so-called transverse cross section or I-cross-section...”)

As they talk, Cheung does not exactly lie, but he tailors the truth and conceals his purpose. In a gesture of friendship and private expiation, he gives her his book of Confucian sayings, his English translation penned over the Chinese characters. Cheung’s inability to reveal his real name and profession is a fine metaphor for his deeper identity issues—he’s an utterly sane “Mysterious Mr. I,” a puzzle even to himself. When he asks Loa if she’s happy (a propos having “Asiatic blood—in a white country”), the question applies as well to a man named Y. Cheung.

The Loa-Cheung chapters are rich (and loopily didactic) with musings on race and place; for our purposes, it may suffice to paraphrase Kong-Fu-Tse [FOOTNOTE 8]: the harmony of the world depends on that of states, which is built on that of families, selves, souls, thoughts, and the extension of knowledge. “Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things, and seeing them as they really were,” reads Cheung to Loa. Perfection of knowledge leads to that of thoughts, souls, selves, families, states, and the whole world.

With this philosophical palindrome in mind, we can return to “Strange Romance,” which now seems like a dark version of Cheung’s tale, made diminished and unreal. Its unhappy ending contrasts with the Keeleresque clinch (that Cheung, unsurprisingly, will deliver). Gyles Kew, consulting with a Phoenix occultist on the matter of the alien Tarot, improvises a story of “a Chinese girl astronomer who speaks no English whatsoever”—a triply fictional version (story-within-story-within-story) of the part-Chinese Loa. And his father’s “100 percent super-perfect focusing” telescope, which gives Gyles comely “proof of the multiplicity of world systems,” only visits heartbreak upon him, for whom astronomy is a hazy subject. It is a bleak inheritance.

On the track to claiming his inheritance, Cheung trains his eyes (or eye-beams) on “Strange Romance,” and discerns the I-beams that form the coded message. Or (to phrase it from a different architectural angle), he perceives the story, quite literally, in cross-section. The sheer mechanicalness of this conceit is prefigured not only by Cheung’s training as a civil engineer and his employment at bridge-construction company, but in the novel’s dedication to a professor at the Armour Institute of Technology, who taught Keeler “the theories underlying bridge design, and the mechanics of steel construction.” Now we can see “Strange Romance” more distinctly as a bridge: from Cheung to the rest of the Marceau books, and one that connects (rather than interrupts) the two parts of Story A, its minor-key plot and theme resonating with Cheung’s multiple plights. (Perhaps it corresponds to a bridge in a piece of music.)

Toward the end of the book, Cheung performs a curious demonstration for Harven’s employees. At one point, he adds potassium bichromate to a tumbler of tap water, turning it “a beautiful yellow.” The color is his color, of course. (Earlier in the book, we are given Harven’s assessment of “the character of the Yellow Man.”) By the novel’s conclusion, the mystery of Cheung himself will be “solved” by his romantic association with Loa Marling.

The investigation of things—leaks and manuscripts—has blossomed into all sorts of perfection. And as Cheung and Loa ride off into the sunset, or at least walk to their favorite park bench, Confucius has—and is—the last word of the Marceau case.

Concluding Unscientific Postscript Early in Nabokov’s U.S. residence (1940–1959), Dutton dropped Keeler; reading habits aside, it seems unlikely that VN had ever heard of the chronicler of London-of-the-West, let alone read him. Yet having finished Cheung, one comes to “The Vane Sisters” with new eyes, and a mind open to obliquity.
And I wish I could recollect that novel or short story (by some contemporary writer, I believe) in which, unknown to its author, the first letters of the words in its last paragraph formed, as deciphered by Cynthia, a message from his dead mother.

The acrostic supports this: one can read as incestuous two texts that derive from the same words (i.e., “Strange Romance”).

This is, of course, Nabokov’s (or the sisters’) grand hint to the reader. But could it be something more? A “yellowly blurred” recollection of a half-heard plot, perhaps, or something gleaned from a book review—a curiosity profitably misremembered, to find new life a dozen years later? Statistical insanities aside, some things can, it seems, be attempted twice in a thousand years.

Could he have been inspired by his doctor’s telephone number, Bittersweet 5959?

Each chapter consists of 22 stanzas; in all but the fifth chapter, each stanza begins with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. A number of the Psalms are similarly structured.

In City of God, XVIII, Ch. 23, Flaccianus produces a Greek manuscript, supposedly the poems of the Erythraean Sibyl; in one poem, the letters of the foregoing translation (IESOUS CHREISTOS THEOU UIOS SOTER) are each used to begin a line of verse—what we might term an acrostic “squared.”

His editor called the sisters at the story’s center “not worthy of their web”—i.e., less interesting than the author’s bright weave.

One confidently assumes that Keeler didn’t ascribe
to it a more negative definition, viz., “underhanded.”

Not to mention this indirect “note.”

Readers of Joyce’s Ulysses may recall one of its mu-
sical leitmotivs, the chestnut “Love’s Old Sweet
Song.” In at least one instance, each word of the title
appears on its own line, suggesting that Joyce wants
us to read it acrostically: LOSS.

Who ranks, we learn in Scheme, right up there
with Buddha and...Ouspensky!

The telescope’s position was fixed by Gyles’s fa-
ther, and the likelihood that he had observed the
extraterrestrial woman before his death lends a
tinge of pseudo-incest to Gyles’s infatuation.
(Pseudo-incest will also be revealed in Story A.)

Keeler News, No. 30 (December 2000)