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christmas needs to come early this year

Karl was vacuuming the carpet like I had asked him to do while I flummoxed and flumped the furniture all over the narrow living room, making way for the fake but, to our eyes, gorgeous and redemptive Christmas tree.

‘Karl, Jonah,’ Manfred, our third roommate, stood in his coat, shoeless, spooning food from a foam plastic container into his mouth with his fingers; he and his fiance Victoria had been out to dinner, ‘I know you’re both lonely but-‘

‘Ahem!’ Karl cleared his throat forcefully and held the roaring vacuum up with arms outstretched towards Manfred. A warning.

‘It’s only November-‘

‘Christmas needs to come early this year.’ I said it more to the window-sill I was clearing of grit and low-wage-bachelor debris (cigarette butts, mugs, bits of paper, ash, two copies of Mad) than to Manfred. Karl and I had already dusted the high walls with the broom and strung three strands of lights around the room, making a quadruple layer of them, so long did they stretch.

‘I don’t know about anyone else,’ Manfred was not to be ignored, ‘but I’m not even done eating my Halloween candy, and now, what? Guys. Guys?’

‘Ahem! Ack ack ack.’ Karl ran the vacuum across the floor and just shy of Manfred’s shoeless feet, coughing on the dust and dog-fur storm scattered by the vaccuum.

‘I even saw some trees today on the way home, alongside the FDR, that still had green leaves, guys. Green leaves!’

‘Christmas needs to come early this year.’

‘And just ask the dog.’ Manfred was insistent. ‘Look at him, look at Pressler Dog. Look at neutered Pressler Dog.’ Pressler wagged his tail upon hearing his name, mouth open in what could have been a grin but just as easily could have been obliviousness. ‘He hasn’t even started growing in a new coat of fur for the wint-‘

‘Ack ack ack!’ Karl, vacuuming the corner, coughed after a gust from the open window blew some of Pressler’s hair – a harvest we walked through and upon daily – into his face.

‘The window, guys, the window! The window is open!’ Manfred ran across the room and pointed to the window in mock but genuine earnest, miming a mime. ‘You don’t have a window open in Brooklyn at Christmas time!’

‘Christmas needs to come early this year.’ I bit my tongue and waited, hoping to relieve the rising tension within me with flatulence, which did not arrive. In my heart, as little Lord Jesus knew, I was making hilarious if very unkind remarks about not having just been to a bourgeoisie dinner having romantic and personalizing conversation with a woman who not only gave proletarian handjobs (good ones) but related in some way to the goodtiming but utlimately emotionless male (Manfred) standing before us shoveling some sort of meat and rice into his open maw with three fingers. The tree, I figured, would stand on the empty and rather useless souvenir box.

‘Come on, guys, I know it’s been-‘

‘Ahem! Agh! Ack ack ack!’

‘-a longer period of isolation, rejection, confusion and meals-for-one than any of us could have imagined, even in our most feverish, thunderous and howling nightm-‘

‘Ah God, ah God, ack ack ack!’ Karl was vacuuming his pant legs, which of course needed it, but also gave him something to embrace. It was, if not necessary, at least beneficial, in that he did not need any further succor from us, so we let him be.

‘Victoria and I walked through the park tonight-‘

‘Christmas needs to come early this year.’ I rapped on the window to make a noise.

‘-and the lawn, the grass was just thick with greenness-‘

‘Yack hack hack!’

‘Come on, guys!’

Pressler Dog, standing, put his head low to the ground as though he wanted to whimper in pity and licked Karl’s face, easily done as Karl lay huddled on the floor, face already awash in tufts of Pressler hair, stuck to streaks of tears and now to Pressler’s saliva. Karl had turned off the vacuum and was spooning the appliance, which was at least two feet shorter than he.

‘Guys,’ Manfred warily eyed the decorations we had taped or stapled or hung from the walls, including the Christmas Ghost, which our married and departed former compatriot and roommate Derik had made two years ago from tissue and dental floss (to cinch the head and give it form), ‘Guys, we’ve barely finished celebrating Columbus Day and not even close to the celebration of the Pequot Indian massacre and you wanna-‘

‘Away in a manger – ack, ack – no crib for a place to sleep-‘

‘Karl, really.’

‘It’s a bed, Karl,’ I said, ‘no crib for a bed.’

Pressler had uncerimoniously crumpled himself onto the floor, his tail in Karl’s face.

‘Go tell it on the – ack, ack, agh! – mountain-‘

I harmonized.

‘-Over the hills and everywhere.’

‘Agh!’

‘Jesus Christ you guys.’

‘Jesus Christ is born,’ we finished in harmony. ‘That’s right, Manfred. That’s right, Karl. Go tell it on the mountain. I’ll shout it from the windows!’

‘Jonah, you don’t even like Jesus.’

‘Christmas needs to come early this year.’

‘-holy night – agh! yack, hog! – all is calm – … – utz! – all is…‘

‘Bright, Karl. All is bright.’

‘He’s gonna lose it on the virgin part.’ Manfred chewed the last of his leftovers loudly, swishing the food down with beer.

‘I’m gonna lose it on the virgin part.’

‘Me, too,’ Manfred said.

I stooped and retrieved Karl, slinging his left arm over my back like a wounded Hollywood soldier carried from a battlefield. Manfred clasped Pressler Dog’s front legs and walked with him – sort of inverted wheelbarrow style – and we harmonized in the November night, windows open to the chilly breeze and street illumination, somewhere up above our heads the dull Christmas star, which died light years ago, twinkling.

 

END

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david foster wallace appreciation

dfw_appreciation

The rising moon looks like it doesn’t feel very well. – Infinite Jest

On Friday, September 12, 2008, novelist, essayist, professor David Foster Wallace hung himself in his home in Claremont, California. 46 years old, Wallace’s literary achievements included the enormous novel Infinite Jest as well as short story collections Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Oblivion; and essay collections Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

For a few years now I have perused the morning’s headlines looking for obits for Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, J.D. Salinger. Wallace’s death was startling and entirely unexpected. A character in Wallace’s short story ‘Brief Interviews’ describes the sensation thus:

My own experience indicates that the cliché [I can’t believe my ears] does not mean I can’t believe that this possibility now exists in my consciousness but rather something more along the lines of … I cannot believe that this possibility is now originating from a point external to my consciousness.

I do not wish to confuse or give too much significance to the idea that Wallace’s works should be studied in light of his biography. This belongs to the biographer, sure, but not to the literary critic. Nevertheless, not knowing Wallace in a personal sense my immense enjoyment of his works did, in a superficial but intensely personal way, leave me the impression that I was connected to him. What ‘The Suffering Channel’ describes as,

the feeling that celebrities were your intimate friends, coupled with the inchoate awareness that untold millions of people felt the same way – and that the celebrities themselves did not.

And yet the feeling of intimacy with the creator of an artwork is larger than this. It is being a part of a community of people who choose to read. Who choose to read the particular works that they read. Who choose to pay attention to the words in the books that they read. ‘When one reads,’ Stephen thinks in Ulysses, ‘these strange pages of one long gone one feels that one is at one with one who once. . .’ [The ellipses is not mine.]

. . . . . . [This ellipses is mine.]

In the opening college-interview scene of Infinite Jest our protagonist Hal, as he falls apart, thinks, ‘The familiar panic at feeling misperceived is rising, and my chest bumps and thuds.’ This panic at misperception weighs upon me heavily in my thoughts about Wallace’s suicide. A note, if one is produced, could enlighten. (And, I joked with a friend this morning, would be 1,000 pages long and have taken three years to write. Or perhaps each piece one writes is, in effect, a suicide note.) But unless the note gives a particular, practical reason (‘A loan shark was threatening to torture me’ or ‘I had to do this to save a little baby in some sprawling and almost incomprehensible but totally believable and true plot that I will now lay down for you and all future generations in the next X-thousand pages. . .’) it will leave us unsatisfied. As death, save perhaps for the old and ill, is unsatisfying. But, as is illustrated in Wallace’s works, if we are all experiencing the same familiar pains and horrors and joys in our own particular/subjective ways, what about now (as opposed to ten years ago? ten years from now?) led to this?

But now we are seeking the immediately practical and applicable. The easy to understand and be explained. But Wallace did not offer anything remotely close to a platitude; not without qualifying it to pieces to be sure it was genuine. Everything was grey. So grey that it took more sentences, more and longer paragraphs within more and longer essays and stories to explain all (all? no such thing) of the contingencies and ‘Yeah, but’ ‘s and qualifiers just to get to what was right there in front of our faces the whole time.

One character in IJ ‘looked at the windows but not at the foliage and blacktop driveway beyond the windows.’ Wallace saw both, saw the person who didn’t, saw the windowsill and the frame and wall around the window; saw the house around the window and town around the house and so on.

. . .

‘Deciding to go ahead and think somebody’s a stand-up guy: it’s like you drop something, you give up all your power over it: you have to stand there impotent waiting for it to hit the ground: all you can do is brace and wince.’ – IJ

I do not wish to imply that Wallace was not a ‘stand-up guy’ because of his conclusion. Because death is not a literary conclusion. The way in which a person dies – even when that person chooses – is still a consequence of millions of other factors, stimuli; many unknowable. It was a choice made in a moment like millions of other choices. A bit of bad mustard, an underdone potato, as Scrooge balks at Marley. Not that I wish to imply that suicide is a poor choice. Only that it is one that is seemingly full of despair and pain and is perhaps not the most selfless choice in one’s life.

I do darkly and curiously imagine Wallace standing in a room in California, applying noose and preparing himself for it. ‘Finally,’ he may have thought. I wonder if ‘his whole life (and then some) tear-asses across his mind’s arctic horizon, trailing phosphenes.’ (All these from IJ.) I imagine him having spent too much ‘Time in the shadow of the wing of the thing too big to see, rising.’ I imagine him looking like ‘shit something heavy had fell on.’ I imagine him pondering ‘the increasing emotional abstraction, poverty of effect, and then total emotional catalepsy – the obsessive analyzing, finally the paralytic stasis that results from the obsessive analysis of all possible implications of both getting up from the couch and not getting up from the couch.’

And it is weird. It is weird ‘to feel like you miss someone you’re not even sure you know.’

Yet when Salinger’s Seymour Glass chose to shuffle off at the age of thirty-one, there was cause for the pain of loss but joy (somehow? yes? joy?) at the choice. David Foster Wallace did not write it (himself, his thoughts, the quest for the great thoughts, ect.) all down for us to see when he hung himself in a home in southern California. He spent over half his life doing so. And still, when we peruse the pages he filled with thought, one feels at one with one who once. . .

Post Script: ‘Keep Coming!’ some friends and I often joke in imitation of AA goers portrayed in IJ. ‘Keep Coming!’ It meant, ‘Whatever awful, down and out, woebegone, horrifying, blundering thing you just experienced, Keep Coming. Keep Coming back to us, back to the table, back to the morning, back to the work that you did not get done today. Back to the thought that you could not pen down yesterday. We see you. You are here and we too are here. You are speaking and we are listening. Keep Coming back to the place where we’ll always tell you no matter what you just Keep Coming Keep Coming!’ This is the gift Mr. Wallace, going forward, has declined.

 

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killing yourself for something to write about

I was given Chuck Klosterman’s cross-country journal about locations where famous musicians died in the continental U.S., Killing Yourself To Live, by a friend, Flynt, who thought I might benefit, as a novice critic myself, from its expoundings on music intermeshed with the critic’s personal reflections and awakenings. The book impressed upon me the desire to respond, perhaps Flynt’s intent; though in an opposite manner, as I found Live somewhat difficult company to keep.

Klosterman, jovially but inattentively, plays a game in his text in which he tries to defy obvious judgments and interpretations he foresees readers coming to, namely that since he “hates reading … many intellectuals consider me irrelevant” and, as he has a character in the book query, “…who wants to read another book about some death-obsessed drug addict who listens to Fleetwood Mac and lionizes the women who used to drive him crazy?” It is rather like a chef warning his restaurateurs that they may dislike the meal he has prepared for them but he is at least aware that they won’t like it, which ignores their enjoyment because well, I know it is not literature and that many thinking people won’t like it but if I make the claim in advance that it is not literature then I can be absolved fromresponsibility to the craft. Any criticism has already been deflected and can be shrugged off as banal or, even, inappropriate.

Mr. Klosterman has here not so much written a book of criticism in which contemplative analysis is given to specific works in their own context but rather has written an episodic road trip tale with involved personal back story about old flames and times and the music he happened to be listening to during these episodes. A lengthy explanation about how “Thom Yorke accidentally predicted the events of September 11 on Kid A,” is proceeded by the admission that “anything I had been playing that afternoon [9/11] would have felt like a terrorist attack … Except that it wouldn’t have.”  Then four pages are given to this “accidental prediction” and how Kid A is a timeline of the day for Americans.

The overall achievement is that Klosterman posits ideas that cannot possibly be true or genuinely intentioned. Thus, there is no real critic, no authority worth considering, only the personal. “There is no truth,” after all. “There is no culture.” The book is full of these grand statements and seem to be the extent of critical thought.

Late in the game it is claimed that “every straight man born after the year 1958 has at least one transitory period in his life when he believes Led Zeppelin is the only good band that ever existed.” That I and the six males I consider intimate friends report never having had this experience with Zeppelin must, according to Klosterman, mean that either we are all homosexuals (unknown to us as of yet, and also to five spouses) or that we weren’t born after 1958. But no matter, because the thought wasn’t meant to have any value beyond its immediate and transient impact. It is as though the book is gabbing at a party hoping that everyone else in the conversation is too inebriated or indifferent to think about what their fellow conversationalists are saying. The only value a thought has, then, is that it sounds “interesting,” not that it is correct or incorrect, or even relevant.

It seems obvious that Klosterman does not take his own grandiose claims seriously. Furthermore, his statements evidence a lack of careful, involved attention, which is what makes Live such a frustrating read and a discouraging  example of contemporary rock criticism: a tendency to make convoluted, involved declarations that are not meant to be considered accurate or inaccurate but only heard and repeated, as though each concept is only important in the immediate now and need not be true or false at any other time. The whole experience loses even the attempt (in a practical sense) at critical omniscience and becomes totally subjective; not necessarily an awful situation but one in which serious criticism and thoughtfulness play no part and art is solely for subjective consumption, never collective interpretation. Klosterman is not a serious critic or writer – “serious” meaning valuable in thought and action – because he is not striving for any objectivity, however illusory objectivity may be.

Indeed, Klosterman claims, “Artists who believe they have any control over the interpretation of their work are completely fooling themselves.” This is true if the audience does not believe in the existence or significance of an artist’s intent or that any artist actually takes the time to carefully construct a story/song/painting in the hopes of communicating something that the audience can not only identify with but also understand the intended meaning of.

Reported “arguments” from Klosterman and Live’s cast of characters concerning “whether or not Boston had three great songs or no great songs” or “why the Creedence Clearwater Revival song ‘Ramble Tamble’ illustrates a larger truth about Vietnam, despite the fact that the lyrics of ‘Ramble Tamble’ are not about war,” are not at all meant as arguments or explanations but brief stories of lackluster introspection in the life of a kid who grew up listening to rock and roll, not much caring what it was supposed to be about but only that it was about something to him. There is a sense that the writer is not at all serious about the implications and qualities he claims to admire about the object of his love, rock and roll. Indeed, it is as though the writer is so flippant and indifferent that he is able to toss off explanations and ideas without having to evaluate them with any critical study or thought because who would bother anyway?, is the tone of the explanations and thus the tone the reader must adopt in order to read the book. This indifference leaves the whole venture void of tension or significance since the writer has gone out of his way to convince his readers that he both cares and yet does not care about interpretation.

Many sentences, if thought about for a moment before rushing into the next, don’t make much sense and prohibit the reader from considering  Klosterman’s perceptions with any sincerity. “Technology,” he writes, “solves everything because technology is invulnerable. And this is what almost everyone in America thought at around 8:30 A.M. [on 9/11].” Or another pronouncement, this about Roger Staubach, “…whoever is your hero when you’re nine remains your hero forever.” It does not take much reflection to understand that these statements may ring true for the writer himself and perhaps for his friends, but can hardly blanket the population at large. (Again, if me and those whose opinions I sought on the topic are any sort of relevant counter-point. Perhaps me and mine live in a tiny pocket outside of the public for whom Klosterman reserves his proclamations, but it is doubtful.)

Klosterman’s unstated denial that people everywhere (or even limited to rock and roll fans, obviously his intended audience) are different in their behaviors and experiences is evidenced in a fantasy sequence envisioning his own  obituaries. “Jon [co-worker at Spin magazine] would likely compare me to some dead genius I’ve never even heard of (possibly Joseph Mitchell).”* That Klosterman is able to name the genius he has not heard of is irrelevant; in the world of this book the author may set rules for his text which he does not have to follow. Or another instance: “September 11 is the one issue every American can be completely earnest and unguarded about.” How I do wish the half-dozen people I’ve offended with my own “earnest and unguarded” recollections of the infamous day I myself spent in New York had read Live and been appropriately  instructed.

Live does on occasion spark a brighter flame and give cause for a chuckle. “Line dancing,” the writer observes, “reminds me of the way Great Britain used to fight land wars.” Unhappily, this proceeds his observation that, “It always fascinated me that the people who liked George Strait and Billy Ray Cyrus were equally enamored with linear, highly structured dance choreography that offered no spontaneity whatsoever.” Why is this puzzling, Chuck? The two forms – the music and the dancing – seem all too appropriately matched from this side of logic.

“‘Even when it’s merely an accident, dying somehow proves you weren’t kidding.” But that is all that Killing Yourself To Live seems to do: kid. In seeking to explain why dead rock stars have any significance the writer concludes that a) they don’t and b) they do. Wink wink, nudge nudge. “You’re killing me, Klosterman,” I thought throughout my reading. But it had little to do with living.

* For those, like myself, who in fact did not know who Joseph Mitchell was – as Klosterman didn’t? – our Britannica tells us he wrote for The New Yorker early/mid century and even claims “His vignettes … [about] eccentric denizens … were viewed as stylistic precursors of the subjective ‘new journalism’.” I’ll tackle that after I get to the rest of John Updike and Cheever. Not to mention the rest of Klosterman’s oeuvre. Cocoa puffs?

END

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