Sunday, April 25, 2010

Charles Bowden,Lock-Picking, Slavoj Zizek, and Manuel Rivas

Charles Bowden, who lives in Tucson, a few miles from the Mexican border, and who writes, as one publicity piece pretty accurately puts it, about living a moral life in a culture of death, is a Thoreauian crank nature writer, essayist ,scribe of memoirs on the hazardous but beautiful life on the Mexican border and teller of true tales of drug- dealing and beautiful death in Chihuahua and Ciudad Juarez. Altogether a brilliant scribe of the dark side of life.
He has written several books on the southwest desert, a piece on Edward Abbey, numerous essays and now a multiple series on Juarez, culminating this year in Murder City, published by Holt and Dreamland, with black and white graphic drawings by Alice Leora Briggs, published by the University of Texas Press in Austin. He was recently in town to accept at an art gallery in Chelsea the Orion magazine award for book of the year, for Some of the Dead are Still Breathing, published in 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

In this book, there are a number of excellent essays, but my favorite is an essay called "Serpent" in which he describes his life with a blacktail rattlesnake named Beulah that coiled up one day and settled next to Bowden on his porch rocking chair.

"I am clumsy...she can see that with her eyes, though she hardly relies on sight.And I am warm... I become a shape with a field of temperatures of different intensities, one so finely felt that she can perfectly target any part of my body. And I am irrelevant unless I get too close- She will ignore me if I stay six feet away. She will ignore me if I become motionless for 180 seconds.

If I violate the rules of her culture, she will work through a sequence of four tactics. First, she wil pretend to be invisible and hope I do not see her.If that fails, she will try to flee.If that fails, she will rattle in hope of frightening me away. And finally, if I am completely ignorant of simple courtesy and get within a foot or so of her, she will attack me.

...She herself is cultured. In her lifetime, she will attack maybe thirty or forty times.She will never attack a member of her own species. She will never be cruel. She is incapable of evil."

This is a wonderful essay on, as Bowden puts it, a man trying to get outside the cage of his DNA by living with a snake.Highly recommended.

"A Casual Introduction to Lock-Picking" was the title of one of the workshops at the 4th Annual Anarchist Bookfair, held last week on the premises of the Judson Church in Greenwich Village, which has served as a beacon light for civil rights for almost two hundred years now. I missed this intriguing course, sandwiched between the usual offerings dealing with globalization, radical parenting,the politics of disaster and other choice offerings. In fact, I missed all the workshops and only managed to attend the bookfair itself, which some have described as a "good knock-off" of the annual San Francisco anarchist book event, although somewhat smaller in scope.But I was intrigued by the course description-which reads in part:
"We will.. explore the mechanical components of pin tumbler locks in order to develop
an understanding of how subtle mechanical imperfections in the meshing of the components can be manipulated so as to bypass the need for a key."

Whoever wrote this could graduate to the course catalogue at Oberlin or Swarthmore Colleges , to be sure, or certainly the Advanced program for a Masters Degree in Pickpocketing, said to be taught in several Southern Hemispheric port cities. And ,one might add,surely coming to our own semi-depressed Northern climes soon as well.

Slavoj Zizek is by now the most famous cultural critic and philosopher in the Western world. A native originally of Slovenia, he now divides his time between academic assignments in London and in Ljubljana. His writings are the most prolific in virtually any corner of the arts and aciences, barring only Joyce Carol Oates. And on top of that, to see him in person, this unreconstructed mix of Hegel, Marx and Jacques Lacan,is to watch an inferno of a mind in operation.
His books are worth the price alone for their sizzling and unexpectedly wide -ranging criques of film and the popular culture, let alone politics and religion. There's a new one out from Verso,Living in the End Times - and I have already made the plunge into its endlessly fascinating pages.

Manuel Rivas is Galicia's most famous novelist, and northwest Spain's candidate for some serious literary prizes. Three of his works of fiction, beginning with Carpenter's Pencil, a brilliant novel of the Spanish Civil War, and two other works containing much folkloric poetic content, have been published here by Overlook Press. But his latest-"Books Burn Badly", just out from Harvill Secker in London, has been almost uniformly praised as a masterpiece- with comparisons in brilliance to Joyce and Marquez- But here is a writer who combines skillful prose on the day the Falangists burned libraries in Galicia - August 19, 1936, and also executed Garcia Lorca- with a poetically brilliant style of writing on the peoples and life of urban and village Galicia.
Here is a sample:

"Things spoke and fell quiet.Here were two perceptions that made a picture or a poem special.One speaking of things.Capturing the speaking of things, their expansive aura,their meaning and translating it into the language of light or sounds.The other, the falling quiet of things.Their hiding.Their being absent. Their emptying.Their loss.Relating or relecting that was another shudder.The first caused a frontal shudder. The second, a lumbar tremor."

We'll have more to say on Rivas, but this is a writer still comparatively unknown in this country, although his writings have been translated into many languages.Pay him heed and be uncommonly rewarded-the latest book is just delicious.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

David Remnick, Robert Coover and Charles Bowden

Lots to report- David Remnick's THE BRIDGE:THE LIFE AND RISE OF BARACK OBAMA" is the best political biography out perhaps since Robert Caro's trilogy(so far) on Lyndon Johnson. It traces the history of our 44th President up to his election, and is an in-depth study of how this uniquely talented individual created an ethnic identity for himself as well as political roots in Chicago out of a background as the product of an absent African father and somewhat absent but loving white mother, growing up in the more racially tolerant community of Hawaii.This biography may not please his most unthinking followers or detractors, because it is so well- researched,nuanced and well written. But it conveys the first fuller picture of Obama's youth and college and law school experience which were only touched upon in the famous DREAMS FROM MY FATHER.
Remnick's book, which begins with Selma, Alabama, and Obama's speech there in 2007, is filled with flashbacks and in depth analysis of the civil rights struggle as well as America's continuing journey to make itself a "more perfect union", as our President is given to say from time to time.

Remnick wrote it, amazingly, in only one year while continuing as editor of the New Yorker- a tribute,given all the interviewing(the ground for which was laid by his duly acknowledged researchers)and writing that had to be done to produce a 600 page text.
I have very few gripes about this tome- it replaced 5 equally worthy literary offerings I have been reading-and you know how good a book The Bridge is when you awaken at 330 am on the weekend, and push the other volumes on your king sized bed closer to the floor, grab the eponymous volume in question and bite off another 50 or so pages before drooling back to sleep.

Hardly any gripes here- except the use of "conspiracy theory' as an unthinking term to tarnish the Daniel Corsi's(Obamanation) of the world as well as the Jeremiah Wrights(AIDS was caused by the Govt asa plot against blacks)
Let's be careful we do not succumb to putting some of the other events in history, which were real conspiracies,like the Gulf of Tonkin, Watergate, and the Kennedy assassination, (guilt for the latter now having admitted by three dead Mafia leaders and in E Howard Hunt's confession)-- in the same basket with the loony tunes space aliens or Glenn-Beck invented stuff. As Peter Dale Scott points out in his epochal study- Deep Politics- there is a level of parapolitical activity that goes on in politics that the media does not prefer to report, and even less so these days given the lack of real investigative reporting and the conversion of TV newschannels into 24 hour tabloid entertainment channels.

But overall, kudos for Mr Remnick, though his magazine would be the last to blow the lid off the truth of the seamiest undersides of American politics, as compared to its continued good reporting but from the inside by the well-motivated but highly connected Sy Hershes of the world.

Robert Coover, who has now published 18 or 19 novels, one loses count, has scribed another gem of black humor- NOIR- in which this sage Professor of Lit at Brown University and master of the post-modern send-up, having skewered westerns in Ghost Town, now does the favor for noir mysteries.It's a terrific read. Sample this- when the endangered private eye,one Mr Noir,(one can't use "" more than once in any piece) observes two yakuza opponents, fighting not with bullets but for tattoo space with the body of a prostitute being used as a message board and one tattoo being overwritten by another-

Or check out this passage where the alky dick blames all his troubles on the amorphous City-and how She,that targeted anonymous urban entity counterattacks:

"So whenever I got juiced,I'd start railing crazily at her,calling her every dirty name I could think of at the top of my voice so everyone would know.'.....The one night I stumbled over a loosened manhole cover and fell and skinned my nose and that threw me into a violent rage and I strted screaming at her from there where I was lying.You did that on purpose! I yelled.There were noxious vapors belching out of the hole with the filthy cover, so along with all the other filthy things I called her,I cussed her out as a fucking steaming bottomless cunt,and as soon as I said that I knew I had the hots for her,and I knew she was hot for me.That sounds crazy, it was crazy, I WAS crazy, I've said that.But I had to have her and I knew she wanted it.It was all I could think about,to the extent I could think about anything at all.
Come and get me big boy, I seemed to hear her say that. But how do you fuck a city?
The only thing I could come up with was to jerk off over a subway entrance,but when I tried to do that it just made her madder.Maybe she felt insulted or demeaned or just not satisfied,but after that she really got vicious,.Mean streets?? Until then I had no idea.What before had been a subtle sleight of hand became more like an out-of-control-merry-go-round.Whenever I stood up, I got knocked down again.The streets and sidewalks buckled and rolled like a storm at sea, pitched me round,reared up and smacked me in the face.Who knows, maybe I was driving her wild with desire and those were just love commotions of a kind,but they were killing me and I no longer had amorous ambitions.Stroking her when I was down seemed to help,but whenever I tried to stand, she started in on me again.Ever get hit by a runaway building?You don't want that to happen to you.That's when I knew I had to get off the sauce."

Of course, this is not a totally uncommon theme- look at the cover of Rem Koolhaas' Delirious New York, with two of the City's skyscrapers going to bed with each other.Or Art Spiegelman's City of Terror trading cards, enclosed with Raw Magazine no2, with the latest installmentthen published of MAUS, one of which wasa drawing of a man entitled Chased by Buidings.Or consider the bizarre piece I once read in the tabloid Weekly World News, where an Australian chap was alleged to have sex with a manhole cover- because he found the city life so maddeningly erotic. Well there!
This is a theme worthy of more exploration. When I was a little boy- and some say I still am- I ventured forth into the City on the train from the burbs, and was terrified the tallest buildings would fall on me.Little did I know......

This writing is all reminiscent of the great rant, or as it was known in the 19th century, "brag' a la Davy Crockett and the river men of the Mississippi as well as Walt Whitman, that is echoed in The Public Burning of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Coover's brillaint send up- written in the late 1970's- of our would-be American Empire(how we fail to listen to our wisest voices).
In that tome, which I had the distinct pleasure of reading for libel pre-publication, the main character is a literary then VP Richard Nixon, and other chaptersare written by Time Magazine as The National Poet laureate et al. Check this passge out from our own beloved symbol Uncle Sam, recast as Sam Slick the Yankee Pedlar:

"Who-Who-Whoop-Who'll come gouge with me-who'll come bite with me?In the name of the Great Jehovah,and the Continental Congress,I have passed the Rubicon, sink or swim live or die,survive or perish,I'm in for a fight,I'll go to my death in a fight,-..You hear me over there, you washed-up varmints?This is the hope of the world talking to you-I am Sam Slick the Yankee Pedlar- I can ride on a flash of lightnin',catch a thunderbolt in my fist,swallow[savages] whole,raw or cooked,slip without a scratch down a honey locust,whup my weight in wildcats and redcoats,squeeze blood out of a turnip and cold cash out of a parson,and out-inscrutabulize the heathen Chinee-...Yuppee- I'm wild and woolly and full'a fleas,never been curried beneath the knees,so if you want to avoid foreign collision you better abandon the ocean,women and children first!For we hold these truths to be self-evident-that God helps them what helps themselves,it's a mere matter of marchin',that idleness is emptiness and he who lives on hope will die with his foot in his mouth,that no nation was ever ruint by trade,and that nothin' is sartin' but death, taxes,God's glowin' Covenant,enlightened self-interest,certain unalienated rights,and woods woods woods as far as the world extends."

Coover is a master writer. Read his books, all of them!

Stay tuned in the next day or so for a discussion of the great Charles Bowden , Tucson- based Thoreauian crank chronicler of the Southwest Desert and the Mexican border, with all its deaths and drugs thrown in. A great naturalist and essayist as well.