Monday, May 18, 2015

Not a Review of AS I LAY DYING by William Faulkner

     Expectations are double-edged swords. We usually associate them with fodder for disappointment, our hopes dashed to bitters and salt, our valuable time frittered to ashes for the wind to scatter. When I picked up my first sample of William Faulkner, THE SOUND AND THE FURY, I expected his incomparable reputation to welcome me with a fanfare of trumpets and rose petals on the ground. But the book’s southern fried stream of consciousness frustrated me and left me cold. LIGHT IN AUGUST largely moved me but also stretched beyond my tolerance. 
     But our expectation of disappointment is also an invitation to surprise, to sumptuous, revelatory surprise that collects, builds, and blooms into unforeseeable joy that makes us over anew. When I picked up AS I LAY DYING a week ago, I expected it to be more of a travail, one that would reinforce my respect for Faulkner but little more. I did not expect to read one of the best novels I’ve ever read, to have a transformative experience that would challenge my expectations of what a novel could be and what people are.
     The book’s skin is little more than the journey of the Bundrens, a family of uneducated farmers in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, to bury Addie Bundren, the family matriarch, in her hometown, several miles away. That’s it. Simple. But the Bundrens largely embrace simplicity, require it. It allows them to deal with a crushing existence of uncontrollable complexities. They can’t hope to grasp the political, economic, and cultural vicissitudes that conspire to cast them among the downtrodden. But they still want answers, answers to the Big Questions we all wrestle with. And they want answers they can hold in their hands. The simplest, easiest to hold is god. Some, like Cora Tull, cleave too strongly. Some, like Whitfield, not nearly enough. Some, like Cash, turn to personal integrity with steadfast, uncomplicated purity. Some, like his father Anse, pay integrity plenty of lip service while playing the victim to the hilt. 
     Faulkner doesn’t paint the struggle for purpose and meaning in soft, pliant pastels. Even its depiction is complex, with no set consequences for specific patterns of conduct.  Anse cons the pious Addie into marrying him, only then revealing himself to be lazy, selfish, and vain. Meanwhile, Addie falls from her own lofty heights of grace and goes to her grave wracked with guilt. Darl’s wisdom exceeds his actual intellect. He recognizes the multifaceted anarchy of his life, but is undone by his inability to cope with it. Jewel is equally incapacitated within a metaphysical silence, but he resorts to action without contemplation. Thinking about it is just too frustrating, too frightening, yet he survives. Dewey Dell is blessed with a preternatural intuition she cannot rationalize. She knows, perhaps more than any other character, but cannot understand. Yet, you finish the book feeling that she too will survive, despite the hole that asshole Anse has unwittingly dug for her.
     Faulkner reveals deep sympathy and empathy for his characters. He structures the book so that each chapter tells a part of the story from one character’s unique perspective (Think A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, younger readers). But Faulkner also grants those characters the agency to speak in their own voice. The care he takes, crafting each voice with an individual patois and sensibility that we are quick to recognize, speaks to the respect he has for even the villainous Anse and Whitfield. They are as much a product of their hard, indecipherable world as the blameless Cash and Dewey Dell or the more problematic Darl and Jewel.
     Faulkner respects these people and so many people like them that he elevates their story to a mythic scope. The text is peppered with small allusions to the Bible and Greek mythology, but the story itself is a medley of religious highlights. Death itself is the motivator of countless myths and legends. Addie’s death causes a downpour of diluvian proportions, and the Bundrens must at one point ford a torrential river straight out of the Old Testament. Even the crime Darl commits toward the end of the book can be seen as a misguided recasting of the Prometheus myth, and like Prometheus Darl is damned for nothing short of blasphemy. Hell, the family’s journey itself is part Exodus, part Xenophon’s march of ten thousand. Raising the story to eschatological heights is not only appropriately metaphorical. It lends great and edifying value to the lives and struggles of people some of us could easily dismiss. 
     I finished the book two days ago, and I am still reeling. I simply did not expect, could not have expected the experience of reading it. Maybe that’s what the novel comes down to. Expectations. The reader’s, the characters’, ours in general. To expect is to assume you have worked out the elusive order underpinning all of existence. But as we all know, life will constantly surprise you, sometimes pleasantly, sometimes violently. Sometimes it will do both and leave you beside yourself, feeling a fool for daring to predict the path it is leading you down, but also feeling enervated, alive, enraptured by the unknowable possibilities that lay before you. AS I LAY DYING did not simply exceed my expectations. It ground them into powder and blew them into my face. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Not a Review of HYPERION by Dan Simmons

If you trawl the internet for opinions of Dan Simmons’ novel HYPERION, whether you take to Amazon or Goodreads or a half-assed blog like this one, you’re going to find countless reviews and messages that state something to the effect of, “It’s THE CANTERBURY TALES in outer space!” Well, that’s accurate enough if you’re only making a structural comparison between the two. If you want to ignore the fact that Chaucer owed more than a small debt to Boccaccio’s DECAMERON, that the TALES are mostly verse, that Chaucer never finished them, and that, since everyone who wasn’t clergy or nobility at the time was illiterate, we’re not sure who Chaucer was writing for, therefore we’re not really sure what he was trying to say, then yes, HYPERION is THE CANTERBURY TALES in outer space. But a simplistic comparison, no matter its validity, tends to minimize Dan Simmons’ accomplishment. HYPERION rides the currents of its many inspirations into depths they never approached and breaks the surface as something gloriously its own.
Simmons’ choice to use a pilgrimage as his work’s framing device was fraught with more narrative peril than Chaucer faced when composing the TALES. To the modern reader who hasn’t taken at least an undergraduate course on Chaucer the pilgrimage to Canterbury may appear so simple as to be inconsequential. But his contemporaneous readers, immersed in a fictional simulation of their modern world, would have recognized details and nuance that escape us undetected. Simmons’ pilgrimage however is one tile in a speculative mosaic that he has to conjure from word to word. That he does it so gracefully and vividly is a testament to his imaginative fecundity and storytelling economy. Every shred of exposition greets us via intimate conversation with his principal characters. Simmons not only shows us the crumbling Hegemony, the Ousters and their hostilities, the TechnoCore and its intrigues, the titular planet of legend. He makes us feel them it all. His world enters our bloodstream like a transfusion via semantic sleight of hand, and he’s never more successful than making us feel the omnipresent existential horror of The Shrike. 
But Dan Simmons does Chaucer one better. His framework has a story of its own to tell us, the imminent collapse of a once-mighty civilization, and the story weaves in and out of the pilgrims’ individual tales as we learn one by one why these individuals, out of a galaxy of hundreds of billions, were chosen to make this prestigious and fatal pilgrimage. And remember, this is a science fiction novel. Real science fiction is not about spaceships, lasers, and the traditional cosmetic iconography. Simmons takes aim at large targets of substance, and his message — if you want to call it that — becomes more pointed and more powerful with each revelation in the book and the individual stories.
The first of the stories is The Priest’s Tale. I tip my hat to Simmons. It was uncommonly daring to lead off with an epistolary story within a story. “Brace yourself,” he tells us. “This isn’t going to be some simplistic escapist adventure-time space opera for the indulgence of your inner child. I love literature, and I love mixing styles and genres. Get off the train now, or strap in.” The climax of the story also formally introduces us to our menacing MacGuffin. Up to this point we’ve only heard about The Shrike and felt the characters’ petrified repulsion. But when Simmons brings it center stage he makes it a thing to behold with marvel, a perfect note to strike before it becomes more enigmatic and deadly with each subsequent appearance.
Second is The Soldier’s Tale, as much a character study as it is a tragic war-torn love story. Before the tale begins we see the Soldier as our latest cold-blooded militant who doesn’t believe in anything except might makes right. But his story reveals the sickly marrow within, a man who feels deeply, painfully. A romantic in the truest sense. He longs for something that’s been lost. Simmons even begins the story with the Soldier firing arrows through gritted teeth in a virtual re-enactment of the Battle of Agincourt. Over the course of The Soldier’s Tale we see how this man went from longing for some silver to line the oppressive cloud of violence that’s defined his existence, to finding that line in an agonizing irrational love, to watching that love turn against him, extinguishing any chance in his mind of escape. We understand how he became the man we first met, and we pity him.
I love that The Poet’s Tale is a shamefully honest depiction of the artistic temperament: selfish, arrogant, insecure. Of course the Poet narrates his own story. No one else could do it justice. The converse of the Soldier, the Poet starts as the puckish rogue with the biting wit, the kind of character that immediately attracts the reader. By the end of his tale, however, he reveals himself to be the book’s most despicable persona. His biggest complaint is, “Nobody appreciates my genius and I have to churn out garbage to stay rich.” In the end he proves to be a sociopath happy to let everyone around him die so he can finish his magnum opus. I give Simmons a lot of credit for exposing what may be the part of himself he is least proud of. Good for him. It’s brave, and it’s what every writer should do, use the best in themselves to exorcise the worst.
The fifth tale, The Scholar’s Tale, is far and away the most moving and frightening part of the whole book. The Scholar’s beloved daughter grows up to be an accomplished archaeologist but returns from a study of the Time Tombs on Hyperion with a disease that causes her to age backwards until the day arrives on which she will cease to exist. What greater nightmare could someone live than to helplessly witness the slow death of their child? Simmons brings his full array of talents to bear, and smashes your heart to weeping splinters. He mines every moment for its full gut-wrenching effect with the simplest turns of phrase. Nothing fancy, no great semantic pyrotechnics, just the simple telling of a story with efficiency, suspense, and empathy. When I go back to read the individual tales, this is the one I read first.
The Detective Story arrives in the mode of hardboiled fiction, its opening shot hitting us between the eyes: “I knew the case was going to be special the minute that he walked into my office. He was beautiful. By that I don’t mean effeminate or “pretty” in the male-model, HTV-star mode, merely… beautiful.” Simmons even subtitles the story The Long Goodbye. It is the perfect choice at the perfect time. We’re dangling from tenterhooks by a pinkie, and the Detective Story unravels the mysterious helix of the book’s overarching story. Simmons embraces not just the conventions of hardboiled fiction, but the existential angst and fatalistic underpinnings, exemplified when Simmons has a certain character recite an excerpt from the John Keats’ epic, the not-at-all coincidentally named The Fall of Hyperion:

Fanatics have their dreams, wherewith they weave
A paradise for a sect, the savage too
From forth the loftiest fashion of his sleep
Guesses at Heaven; pity these have not
Traced upon vellum or wild Indian Leaf
The shadows of melodious utterance.
But bare of laurel they live, dream, and die;
For Poesy alone can tell her dreams,
With the fine spell of words alone can save
Imagination from the sable charm
And dumb enchantment. Who alive can say,
“Thou art no poet — mayst not tell thy dreams”?
Since every man whose soul is not a clod
Hath visions, and would speak, if he had loved,
And been well nurtured in his mother tongue.
Whether the dream now purposed to rehearse
Be Poet’s or Fanatic’s will be known
When this warm scribe my hand is in the grave.

Which brings us to the last tale, The Consul’s Tale, which unfortunately is the book’s one problematic chapter. Since first reading HYPERION I have gone back and read The Consul’s Tale as a self-contained short story, and on that basis it’s as strong as any of the other tales. But in the context of the novel it’s a bit of a disappointment. It’s a story about two people who we’ve never previously met, and we have to wait until after the story is finished for the Consul to explain what it has to do with anything, although you’ll probably be able to guess before the story is over. This is the climactic tale. It’s supposed to bring everything to a head and unleash all our tensions in a unifying catharsis of narrative and thematic closure, and in the context of the novel I don’t think it satisfies. HYPERION is the story of a group of people making a pilgrimage. By diverting the novel at the height of its urgency to a cast of characters with whom we have no investment Simmons sabotages his carefully crafted tension.
But the misplacement of an otherwise wonderful little bildungsroman doesn’t ruin a book that juggles so many balls of different size, color, and texture and keeps them all soaring with balletic precision and punk rock energy. HYPERION proves you can do the hero’s journey, you can do space opera, you can embrace all the trappings of lowest-common-denominator sci-fi and still create a work of uncommon power and singular character.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Not a Review of THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

     Writers tend to advise the aspiring to read beyond their interests. Wannabe Jedis and pretenders to the Iron Throne, they’re looking in your direction. Don’t just read science fiction and fantasy. Read literary fiction, read history, biographies, poetry. Let your reading run the gamut. I’ve taken that advice, and having done so I can now identify exactly what I want from a book, and it has nothing to do with genre. It has everything to do with characters that pulse and change like crystalline neon, prose that dances a tarantella of gleaming steel, an authorial perspective as unique as a snowflake fingerprint, and above all a narrative panache that defies you to put down the book. A story that crackles like a brushfire will carry me over all shortcomings.
     Despair not, sci-fi/fantasy readers. You’ll find a corker in THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE. Written by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, published in 1974, the novel is not perfect. The characters are defined and variegated and proactive, but with few exceptions they’re not the most complex dramatis personae. The prose gets the job done, but that’s it, workmanlike and lacking poetry. The perspective is intelligent and compassionate, but it’s nothing you won’t find in incalculable other books. But the story and its telling, they dare you to stop reading. It’s two in the morning, you’re going to be useless at work tomorrow, but you don’t care. You have to turn the page.
     We rave about the books that refuse to be put down, that push our world further aside until they’re lost beyond our periphery, and all we have is the world of the novel in our hands. THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE should be studied in writing classes because it does this with more graceful force than most books I’ve read. Niven and Pournelle grab us before it even begins in earnest. Following the dedication is a cast of characters, then a highlighted chronology of the next thousand of our years. Beginning with the Apollo 11 moon landing and culminating in 3017 with “First Contact,” the timeline introduces us to the key points of historical backstory. Free of context terms like the CoDominium, the First and Second Empires of Man, and the Secession Wars jumpstart our imaginations and lure us into a universe we’re now keen to explore. We’re then dropped into a moment of exceptional urgency, during which we meet our main characters at the height of crisis and see, as we do with people, what they’re really made of. “Shit,” we think, “if this is how it starts, where are we going?”
     Where we’re going is to the historic moment of mankind’s first encounter with intelligent alien life. There are plenty of stories about his moment, and plenty of great ones, but few are as addictive and absorbing as THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE. From the moment the alien spacecraft is discovered, Niven and Pournelle slowly crank the narrative vice tighter and tighter. Each development in the story raises more questions, increasing the scope of the conflict and heightening the stakes. That they do so slowly is paramount. Don’t misunderstand. The book is not a slow read at all, nor is it a particularly epic tale. At 550 pages it looks like it should be, but Niven and Pournelle use that space to build suspense across not just the whole book but in a series of set pieces that carry their own ballast of tension. Each of those sequences carries the weight of the entire world because the writers have done such an impressive job of establishing the significance of the smaller daubs of paint within the bigger picture. It’s during these peaks of suspense that Niven and Pournelle’s writing is at its best. Lesser writers can build tension but often don’t know when to release it. Readers instinctively feel for when the gun should go off, and if the writer is taking too long to pull the trigger, we tend to scan, skip over words, and race to the climax. But Niven and Pournelle are better than that. They keep us right where we want ourselves at all times, and then, at a critical point in the story, they give us more than we bargained for and change the whole timbre of the suspense.
     From the moment we first meet the Moties, the aliens, we’re thinking, “Okay, what’s the deal? What’s going on with them?” Then we find out, but we find out by taking a punch to the gut, a kick in the head, and a knife in the back. This is the moment where, to fall back on a cliché, everything changes, or I should say everything that matters changes. We now feel differently for our main characters, for the Moties, for the whole Empire of Man. Before this chapter we asked, “What’s going to happen?” But after this chapter we’re asking, “God’s Teeth, how is it going to happen?” It’s the science fiction equivalent of killing Marion Crane.
     It may seem counterintuitive to use a classic science fiction novel to argue for the genre’s fans to read outside their comfort zone. But I’m on Goodreads, I look through online forums, and it’s tragic to me that most contemporary sci-fi fans’ comfort zones only go back to around the year of their birth. They may read a couple Asimovs or PKD’s or Heinleins, always the top tier names, but few seem inclined to sample STAND ON ZANZIBAR or ALAS, BABYLON or the short stories of Mack Reynolds or Robert Sheckley. Please don’t mistake me for yet another douchebag filling the internet with mewling self-regard for his own irreproachable taste. Read whatever you want, but at least try broadening your horizons for your own benefit. If you read something other than space operas, you may find that it’s not the opera of it that appeals to you. If you read an indie comic book, you may discover that superheroes are not what attract you to sequential art. You may learn something about yourself, even if it’s that you’re just looking for a ripping good yarn like THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Island of Racist Toons

     So, this is just an idea I came up with. It’s still only half-baked, and it’ll remain that way because, as you’ll see, this idea involves pre-existing characters held under copyright. Call it twisted fan fiction if you want. It’s just something I thought of in the spur of the moment, so I’d thought I’d jot it down and share it with you. Have fun with it.

     In 2015 racist cartoon characters have been cast aside by a violently politically correct society. The studios will not employ them, and the public doesn’t want to be reminded of them. Most are homeless or forced to live in slums and indignify themselves for what little they subsist on. Only two have avoided this fate: Bugs Bunny, who is an established icon and whose past racist jokes have been suppressed by Warner Bros, and Speedy Gonzales. 
     Speedy has minimalized his stereotypical characteristics, and is sometimes included in new cartoons on a limited basis. But he must supplement his income by working as a drug runner for South American cartels who still remember him fondly. He is also offered a job to traffic humans to a remote island in the South Pacific, but he refuses that offer despite the obscene payday he would receive.
     He would love not to have anything to do with the cartels, but he needs the money to support Slowpoke Rodriguez, the story’s most tragic character. Unlike Speedy, Slowpoke, by virtue of his intrinsic nature, is unable to muster the energy or interest to sublimate his inherent racism, and has taken to drink and drugs. Speedy is the only thing keeping him alive.
     Meanwhile the Crows from Dumbo have been slowly building a presence on social media, through which they argue for the rehabilitation of offensive toons. It’s not their fault that they were created the way they were, but if given the opportunity, they would gladly try to adapt to modern society’s ethics. They’re starting to build a base of support when they approach Speedy about lending his voice, but Speedy refuses. He suggests they approach Bugs, but the Crows believe that Bugs will never risk his career.
     When Speedy’s drug running is exposed by The Siamese Cats from LADY AND THE TRAMP, what little is left of his career is ruined. He goes to Bugs for help, Bugs floats him some money, but he’s already spoken to the WB brass. They’re not willing to go out on a limb for a “minor” property. He comes home to find Slowpoke has attempted suicide. Speedy races him to the hospital, and Slowpoke lives. But Speedy knows he has to get Slowpoke into treatment or this will go on until Slowpoke succeeds in killing himself.
     Naturally Speedy accepts the human trafficking offer from the cartel, but is surprised to learn that his human cargo is Uncle Remus. Once on their way, Uncle Remus guilts Speedy into taking more renegade toons to safety: the Indians from PETER PAN, the tribespeople from THE ISLE OF PINGO PANGO, the Japanese from PRIVATE SNAFU, the entire cast of COAL BLACK AN DE SEBBEN DWARFS. Speedy can’t refuse.
     On the way he learns of how each of them were cruelly cast aside by the people they represented, that it never occurred to anyone that they had no choice in their creation, that they represent the prejudices of their creators and nothing more. Why should they be punished? Speedy understands why. It’s why he subjects himself to working for a drug cartel to support Slowpoke. As they travel they relate to Speedy their fears of the coming genocide against offensive toons. Speedy is dubious that people would go that far, but Uncle Remus shows him a video on his phone of the Black Centaur from FANTASIA being torn to pieces by an angry mob. Uncle Remus says that was why Bugs offered to pay the cartel to get him out of the country.
     Speedy starts putting the pieces together. After the others are safe, Speedy confronts the Siamese Cats and confirms his suspicions: Bugs Bunny has been behind all of it, including tipping the Cats off to Speedy’s drug running. He knows he has to get the long-suppressed Merry Melodies and Looney Toons with Bugs’ racist jokes and get them out to the younger generations. That means breaking into the WB vaults. On his way he sees a newsfeed of the Crows about to be killed by a mob. Speedy saves two of them, and the Crows distract WB security, allowing him to get to the vaults, where of course Bugs is waiting for him. Bugs overwhelms Speedy because nobody beats Bugs, but the Crows capture him on video explaining himself to Speedy and upload it to YouTube. Bugs chases after them, but Speedy, knowing he’s just ruined Bugs Bunny, leaves without taking the suppressed cartoons.
     Speedy hires the Crows to take Slowpoke to the island of racist toons, where the others will welcome them all. He then goes to save Bugs from an angry mob. He gives an impassioned speech about the need for tolerance of everyone, even the intolerant, otherwise you’re just as bad. Even intolerance doesn’t warrant intolerance. The crowd falls silent, then a rock hits Speedy in the head. He loses consciousness as the crowd swarms over him.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Not a Review of BLEEDING EDGE by Thomas Pynchon

     By definition critics turn criticism into a career, but they often raise disappointment to the level of art. We read some reviews and think, Oh, that one’s sharp, has good taste and a certain alacrity with the written word. Then a book comes along, and those same critics we found so illuminating completely miss the boat. They should have been sounding the clarion call for the novel of its time, for a novel that peels away the scabrous obfuscations and shallow preoccupations that litter the cultural dialogue, that cuts deep into the quick and teaches the lessons we’re most in need of. It’s frustrating enough when the new book comes from the pen of a relative unknown. When it’s coming from the inimitable Thomas Pynchon it’s unforgivable.
     Pynchon has made an illustrious career of reanimating the past with madcap vibrancy and breathtaking wisdom, of translating it and revealing the secret roots of the present at its most confounding. In BLEEDING EDGE he hews closer to the present than he has at any point since V. Published in 1963 V was set partially at the height of Eisenhower conformity in 1956, just as The Sixties as we know it was coming of age. BLEEDING EDGE is set in the several months bookending September 11, and the seminal event of our time is the seminal event of its story.
     Thomas Pynchon was the rock star gunslinger for years, the voice of his generation, but he’s in his seventies now. He’s an elder statesman looking back at opportunities squandered, but don’t make the mistake of thinking he’s aged into a bitchy old man hiding in the walled-off world of his own devising, selfishly lamenting how the young have wasted all the ground he and his gained. No. Pynchon gets it. He hasn’t curled up in a cave of glowing reputation. He has engaged the world, and its creature comforts and most poisonous vices are as obvious to him as they are to you and me. That’s where the genius of BLEEDING EDGE resides, in our distractions and ambitions and in particular our most debilitating weakness: fear.
     Maxine Tarnow is a single mother and freelance fraud investigator who starts looking into the suspicious finances of a computer security firm and its ubergeek CEO, Gabriel Ice. As with every Pynchon novel the premise doesn’t matter nearly as much as the cavalcade of oddball characters and near-absurd episodes that course through the pages. And what could be more insane that September 11, an event that Pynchon posits has left our whole country in nothing less than a post-traumatic regression into infantilized self-absorption?
     The pop culture nerds, the computer geeks, the hackers have all taken refuge in online simulacra, the architecture throbbing with a digital marrow coded for the instant gratification of their escapist dreams. Gabriel Ice, the villain, is the geek gone over to the Dark Side, trembling with the anticipation of flexing his unparalleled intelligence. Take away his fortune and he’s AwesomeSauce42 on the Ainitcool message boards. And the book’s older characters suffer the same plague of self-satisfied sturm-und-drang. Maxine’s lifelong friend, now in her forties, thinks she can still play the Upper West Side J.A.P., simultaneously fending off and entertaining the advances of the Wall Street up-and-comers. Maxine’s surrogate mother, formerly an anti-establishment flower child who railed against Vietnam and Kent State and screamed for Nixon’s head on a pike, has aged into a paranoid conspiracy-theorizing muckraker with a blog.
     Only Maxine is aware of the turn her nation has taken. She understands the lure of anonymity. She feels the sensuous warmth of its liberating ephemera. She loves her children, loves being a mom, but the youthful vitality of chasing the bad guys is a narcotic. She could see herself back with her ex-husband. He has his flaws, but he’s a good father and a good man. But, oh, that corrupt CIA spook excites her like the boys she danced and shared bumps with at the clubs back when the future wasn’t worth considering. She’d love to dole out advice to her friends, set them on the right path, but how can she do that and avoid becoming that yenta of a mother she’s spent her whole life not being? Maxine is as scared as anyone, of the truth, of uncertainty, of death. 
     And that’s why she’s the hero of BLEEDING EDGE. When the unthinkable occurs, when the unimaginable goes down, when terror becomes an unavoidable reality, our culture is given a stark choice, and Maxine alone makes the right one. She doesn’t retreat into an imaginary garden of digital delights. She embraces a brick-and-mortar world, well aware that it sits always on the precipice of self-immolation.
     I could go on and on about Pynchon’s dynamite prose, his character development, his sense of humor and dramaturgy, but all of that is something you as the reader either get or you don’t. But if you are plugged in at all, you would be deaf, dumb, and blind to deny the sage and quiet heroism at the heart of BLEEDING EDGE’s message. You have to face the world no matter the terror. Your only other option is to inhabit a fraudulent existence, a world that is not real. And if your world is not real, what makes you think you’re real?

Thursday, February 19, 2015


     I remember the early morning’s gradient ambience of blue and orange as the sun started to make itself known. I remember Mom behind the wheel in her green scrubs. I remember thinking that green was a weird color for them. They look sick, but you’re supposed to get better in a hospital. I remember Mom always walking us into Nan & Granddad’s house, even when she was running late. We’d walk in, and the smell of eggs in the pan and bread in the toaster would welcome us. Granddad was still working then, but Nan was up and in the kitchen. I’d run up to her and wrap my little arms around her as far as they’d go. I’d feel the billowy flab of her arms wrap around my head and pull me into her soft belly. “Hi, Bubby,” a mellifluous ring of unconditional love.
     Egg-in-a-cup she called it, two fried eggs and crumbles of toast mixed in a mug. The toast would absorb the yolk, and the whole thing was a perfect balance of dry and wet, convenience and affection. That was Nan & Granddad. They made unconditional love look effortless, even when we didn’t.
     I was always in front of the TV by the time Pop came down, probably watching The Price Is Right and wondering why Bob Barker used such a weird-looking microphone. I would hear Pop in the bathroom at the top of the stairs, and a few minutes later his cautious weakened steps would start down. Even with the stoop of a man in his eighties he was tall. He would come into view with his last few steps, his white hair glowing in the shadows.
     “Buon giorno,” I’d call out, really leaning into the Italian accent.
     “Buon giorno,” he’d answer with an octogenarian’s warm wavering grin.
     My session of pre-school was scheduled for the afternoon. One morning I needed to ask Pop a very important school-related question. I greeted him as he came down the stairs, but I was prepared to wait until after his morning ritual. It seemed like the right thing to do. He took his seat at the kitchen table, let Nan bring him his cereal and coffee, and waited for an opening.
     “Pop,” Nan said, “Dot brought over the pictures from the shore,” reaching across the table to get them.
     “What do you need to look at pictures for? You were there.”
     “Oh, God, Pop. You don’t want to see pictures of your great-grandkids.”
     He pointed to my sister and me. “What? They’re right there.”
     “Oh, Madonna, I don’t know. I don’t know.”
     When I remember all those petty arguments between father and daughter, I wish Pop had lived long enough for me to fully appreciate what a smartass he was. I didn’t recognize that side of him at the time. How could I? I was five. But somehow I intuited that they were fights I could laugh at, maybe because my laughter encouraged Pop to frustrate Nan even more.
     After his breakfast Pop moved into the family room and took his seat, the plush maroon leatherette chair next to the front windows and closest to the TV. He took the nub of last night’s cigar from his ashtray and struck a match. The bluish smoke filled the sunlight pouring through the windows. To this day cigar smoke smells like aged wizened jollity.
     “Pop,” I said, “can I ask you something?”
     He waved me over as he would, and I gingerly hoisted myself onto his knee so as not to break it, which I could’ve with my size. “What is it, Bubby?” he asked.
     “Next week is Grandparents Day, and my teacher,” whose name I no longer remember, “wants us to bring one of our grandparents to school and tell why you’re important to us. Can I bring you?”
     “Sure, Bubby,” he said, “Sure you can,” and kissed me on the cheek.
     “Thank you, Poppy,” I exploded and ran into the kitchen, telling Nan that Pop was coming to school with me next week. Then I had to explain why since I hadn’t thought to give her any backstory. No one’s going to bring their great-grandfather, I thought. I don’t even know anyone who has a great-grandfather.
     Then I thought of the day after, once our grandparents had been tucked away where they belonged, in our homes where we were free to be as brazen and carefree as we liked, where the monsters couldn’t find us. I would walk into the classroom. The vampires would be lurking in their shadows. My pride and love for Pop would still be wafting off me, and they’d smell it. Once Mrs. What-Was-Her-Name’s back was turned they’d emerge, gnashing their teeth, salivating with a lust for cruelty, and they’d fall upon me. They could feed on the fat boy or the shy boy. I was used to that. But on the boy with naked defenseless love for Pop? I couldn’t bare that. The morning of Grandparents Day, I asked Pop if he would mind if I took Nan instead.
     Pop died when I was eleven. I remember the flowers arranged around the coffin. I remember kissing his cheek and stopping myself from jumping back from the cold, solid slab. I remember Dad waking me the next morning for the funeral. I remember telling him, “I don’t want to go,” and Dad telling me without a hint of parental rancor that I had to or I would regret never saying goodbye to Poppy. I remember riding in the car to the cemetery, losing my patience with the constant oblivious questions from my four-year old cousin who had no conception of mortality. I remember not understanding why my parents were telling me to stop. I was the one showing the appropriate amount of grief. Look at the red in my eyes, the wet tracks running down my cheeks. And I remember really not understanding the grownups at the luncheon, those who didn’t seem to be grieving at all, laughing over the chicken parm, talking about the Eagles’ chances in the playoffs. Pop was gone. I had said goodbye to him. And regret still tore me into an open wound. I’d forsaken him on Grandparents Day.
     A few months later I was by Nan’s side as she was grocery shopping. I laid out my guilt, conscripting her into the role of confessor, begging for penance.
     “Oh, Bubby,” she said with a wave, “he was glad he didn’t have to leave the house.”
     I never forgot my regret or how Nan had absolved it with one sentence. And neither did she. When I was in high school I would often stop at Nan & Granddad’s after football practice. They would feed me leftovers from their dinner or whatever Nan had to make. One night she whipped up some giambotte, which I don’t think was a real word but Nan’s pidgin term for a bunch of disparate ingredients she would combine into something mouthwatering. I sat with Nan & Granddad at the kitchen table, spooning giambotte into my mouth and talking old movies with them. Granddad and I were debating who was more attractive, Ingrid Bergman or Gene Tierney, when Nan told me, “Bubby, when we’re gone, don’t you regret anything.”
     Unconditional and effortless.

     I’m taking a last walk through the house before the new owners arrive. Every corner thrums with a different echo that catches in my throat. I’ve said goodbye to Nan & Granddad. I’ve said goodbye to every one of their generation. Aunt Theresa and Uncle Juno, Uncle Jim and Aunt Bev, Aunt Molly and Uncle Joe. They all beamed with a charity and spoke with a warmth that now dwells with the dinosaurs. I’m standing in a hearth aglow with my most welcoming memories still flickering and lapping. I’m lingering. There’s nothing else for me to do here, but once I leave, the fire will die in ash and gray. I don’t want to forget their voices.

     That used to be the living room over there. Nan & Granddad remodeled when I was in middle school, but it’s the original décor, the kind a contemporary woman would reject in favor of a sinkhole, that crackles and sparks in the hearth. Cream wallpaper with bulging flourishes. I would poke it and watch the divots slowly refill. The couch with its blooming tufts of Dijon velour. Two orange chairs and a green one of scratchy material nobody sat in, because who wants to sit on steel wool? There was no plastic covering on the furniture though. Nan & Granddad had made too warm a home for that.
     I remember that one of the endtables, the one with the rotary phone, which fascinated me as a child, held all the photo albums. The oldest image in any of the albums was a portrait of Pop’s parents taken when they were well into middle age. I couldn’t help but notice that something had happened between the generation of Italian women who came over on the boat and their daughters. Maybe it was the voyage across the Atlantic, or maybe assimilation has some genetic consequences. In any event, Pop’s mother did not have features you would necessarily describe as feminine. Even Granddad would say, “Man, the women back then? Woof.”
     “Ant, stop,” Nan would tell him. “That’s my grandmother.”
     “Come on, Marion. She’s faccia brute.”
     And he’d turn to me, and we’d share the laugh.
     Along with the photo albums was an old box of stained alder. Inside were a series of slides and a viewer. I remember first handling the viewer, thinking, It’s like my viewer but not. My toy was light and cheap, intended to break easily in the hurly-burly of a child’s hands and be replaced. It was a garish red of novelty. Nan & Granddad’s viewer was larger, hefty, solid. You felt the bright clink of gears within. It was colored a permanent mahogany. It had been built to endure.
     At first the slides confused me. Why put two of the same picture on one slide? I slipped one into the viewer, raised it to my eyes, and pressed the button. It was a Nan I’d never seen before, in her wedding gown, young, thin, the poise of someone whose future is an invisible irrelevance. She was standing before the same mirror still affixed to the same bureau from Nan & Granddad’s bedroom, but the furniture’s wood was intact, no chips or scratches, and it gleamed with a fresh polish. So did Nan. 
     I fed slides into the machine with the same rapacity I would stuff my face with cupcakes. I was stunned to see they were projected in 3D. That’s like a new thing, isn’t it? They snapped out of the viewer in razor-edged black-and-white. The images weren’t cracked and yellowed from exposure. They were crisp with thick blacks you could run your fingers through and flawless whites that would illuminate a cavern. They shimmered with the glamour of Casablanca or Laura. Look at Granddad. Look how young he is, how smooth his face is, how dashing he cuts in his tuxedo, how straight he’s standing, before decades of manual labor will bow his legs and fill his joints with arthritis. There they are kneeling at the altar in church, back when mass was said in Latin, and the priest had to rest the Eucharist on your tongue, lest the laypeople taint the Body of Christ. I was witnessing the birth of Nan & Granddad, their first moments as a married couple, the grown children of their proud parents. I saw my elderly aunts and uncles dancing tarantellas with youthful exuberance rather than nostalgia, their hands in the air, batting the world around like a beach ball.
     “Doesn’t Nan look beautiful?” Granddad would ask me.
     “She looks like Olivia De Havilland,” I’d say.
     I remember looking through the viewer when I was around thirteen. Nan told me to hold on and went upstairs. Nan had dedicated one of the drawers in her dresser, the memory drawer as she called it, to storing anything she remotely cared about, even a fingerpainting from one of the grandkids, and she always heralded an object’s consignment to the memory drawer with the announcement, “This is going in the coffin.” It was a running joke within the family that she’d need more than one coffin. Apparently Nan thought she was Egyptian.
     She came down and said, “Look at your grandmother here.” The portrait she showed me had obviously come from the memory drawer. Its sides were frayed, its face was yellowed, and the lower left quarter of it was missing. But all of that escaped me at the time. This was a photograph from a model’s shoot. Nan was the youngest I’d yet seen her, barely a woman. Her pose was nothing short of a feminine slink. Her shoulders were bare. Long thin arms flowed into gloves at the elbow. Her hands opened like a flower beneath her chin, her face tilted up to catch the key light. If she looked like Olivia De Havilland in the wedding photos, here she was daring Jack Warner not to put her next to Errol Flynn.
     “Are you on your way to the Brown Derby,” I asked.
     Nan smiled. “Well, you know why it’s torn up?” she asked, and jabbed a finger at Granddad.
     “Why?” I asked him.
     “Because,” Nan said, “he was so jealous when he found it, he snatched it out of my hand and ripped it.”
     Granddad said, “This ‘talent scout,’ ” he put the quotation marks around the phrase, “saw your grandmother in Macy’s—”
     “He was a nice man.”
     “Sure. He wanted to get you on the couch.”
     Granddad’s scowl burned with the same insecurity of the twenty-eight year old who married Nan. Increased weight didn’t matter. Diabetes and the array of prescription bottles didn’t matter. All the drama that comes with the decades of a shared life didn’t matter. She was the same woman she’d been in the portrait, and his scowl was the same. “I don’t like it,” he said.
     My smile pulled my jaw off the ground.

     I walk up to the second floor, past the plastered-over hole in the wall that Granddad made when he fell down the steps, the hole that at last convinced the widower to live what remained of his life with my parents. I look into Pop’s old room. For the twenty-four years after he died, his furniture, his affects stayed in his room. Only once we’d sold the house did we take them out with everything else. The empty room feels like a renunciation of his existence. I walk into Nan & Granddad’s room. The dresser with the memory drawer is gone. We never did put any of those memories into the coffin with her. Their bed is gone. I’m thirty-five and I want to crawl under the sheets on a Saturday morning and nestle between them again. But there’s nothing of them left. I leave what was once their bedroom and turn back down the hall.
     I stop.
     There’s one thing left, a small painting in a cheap wooden frame on the wall. I’d forgotten about that painting. It’s been on this wall, in the same place, for as long as I can remember. I don’t know how old it is or when Nan & Granddad bought it. It’s a simple street scene, almost in silhouette. The simple brick tenements are painted with a slight bow, and their roofs are leaning toward the street. Thin black clotheslines flit from one building to the next, but there are no clothes hanging from them. The street is empty but for a single horse and buggy trotting toward the orange horizon. The sun has set, but darkness still has to descend. This is isn’t a painting of the world as it was when Nan & Granddad were children. It’s the memory they chose to hang on their wall.

     I remember going into Nan & Granddad’s attic one winter I was home from college and finding two small suitcases full of Super 8 reels. Granddad remembered taking home movies with a Super 8 camera, but neither of them had any idea of what the film in the suitcases had captured. I saw the glinting nostalgia in their eyes as they handled the rolls of film, turning them over in their hands, desperate to see their memories enlivened on the wall of the living room.
     I located a projector, and we watched every reel I’d found. I’d seen photographs and slides, but I was transported by the Kodachrome splotches of light dancing across the wall. Even with the clattering of the projector replacing their words and laughter, Nan & Granddad’s lives came spilling out, reanimated. I saw them driving to Florida for their honeymoon, Nan lying on the beach and Granddad swimming in the ocean. I saw them on vacation with my aunts and uncles in the Poconos, skiing during the day and dancing into the night. I saw them in the red and green of Christmas, enjoying their children’s wonder as the wrapping paper came tearing off each new present.
     As the reels unspooled Nan & Granddad didn’t talk much. Tears ran down Nan’s cheeks as she watched her parents return to life, not as I’d known Pop, slow and hunched over, but as she had, swift and upright. I even saw the light of the projector reflected in the occasional tear of Granddad’s. He kept it locked in the corner of his eye like a man should. They sometimes broke the silence with the notice of someone whose name I’d never heard before. “Oh my God, it’s Katz.” “Look at Fatty Annie.”
     These were people, members of my family, whose lives had never intersected mine. Death had met them before I had. I couldn’t share in the memory of their lives. They’d never touched me, and I had no real love for them. But Nan & Granddad had known them. They’d loved them, and the memories they still harbored welled up as each frame flickered before the light.

     I’ve mourned my loss of Nan & Granddad and lived on as I have to. I still have moments where their deaths feel fresh, and I’m sure I’ll have them forever. But the fear of life without them is gone. When I enter my twilight, I’ll still have my memories, and if they happen to fuzz with age, I’ll have my photographs and home videos to remind me. Nan & Granddad aren’t going anywhere as long as I’m alive.
     But will my children remember them? When they’re my age, will they still feel love for them? They never knew Pop. In time they’ll have their own children who’ll never have known Nan & Granddad. They’ll hear me speak of them, hear the love I still have for them in my voice, but they won’t know them as I did. Nan & Granddad will become two more people whose lives no longer intersect living memory. It happens, and it scares me.