I see you.

"If we accept that we can see that hill over there, we propose that from that hill we can be seen."


Ways of seeing Ways of Seeing

Spoiler Alert: "Ways of Seeing" is actually based on a TV series from the 1970s and you can watch the episodes for free online. Here is episode 1:

You should still read the book though. It's very short. You could probably read it in less time than it would take to watch the videos.


Great Last Sentence

Despite all my complaining about Speedboat, the last sentence is really good:

"It could be that sort of sentence one wants right here is the kind that runs, and laughs, and slides, and stops right on a dime."

It's the kind of sentence you write on a scrap of paper and say to yourself "This'll be the last sentence of a book someday."


Ice Cold

Happy summer everyone. I assure you I am reading Speedboat, but I do not like it! And so I can't think of much to say about it. It's just ice cold, man. Too cool for school. It's hard core New York city, stone cold, blank faced, bump-into-you-on-the-street-and-not-look-up-from-the-sidewalk stuff. Step-over-a-drunk-on-the-sidewalk stuff. Intellectualizing-sadness stuff. I mean to say - it's boring.

I understand what Adler was aiming at. She's obviously very very smart. And she's trying to capture the whip smart, independent, single youth of NYC. Fine. But it's leaving me cold. Maybe it's just me.

I think I'm looking for the hard on the outside, soft on the inside reality of 99% of people but she's writing characters that are hard on the outside and blank on the inside.

From a review on Slate:  "Speedboat belongs to a genre of '70s women’s fiction, in which a damaged, smart woman floats passively yet stylishly through the world." [...] "In all of these Smart Woman Adrift novels, there is a radical fragmentedness, a supremely controlled tone, a shrewd and jaded observation of small things, a comic or wry apprehension of life’s absurdities, and pretty yet melancholy vignettes of the state of being lost."

Yes, I know. That's the whole point. I think I'm looking for love in the wrong book. The real fear: I would have loved this book when I was 19. It's got that disaffected youth vibe, like Catcher in the Rye for girls with good jobs.

Also, Speedboat feels like an object of the 70s. It was trying to be cool, reflecting the culture as a whole. Now, it's cool to be candid. Irony is out. Sincerity is in. Emotional honesty is all the rage. The importance of the honest individual. You can see it on TV with shows like Parks and Recreation or in all the raw, cathartic memoirs like Wild, Life After Death, et. al.

Sorry, I'll keep reading it. Maybe I'll change my mind.


It is better to destroy than to create what is meaningless

Williams opens the last section of Book III of Paterson with the following passage -

It is dangerous to leave written that which is badly written. A chance word, upon paper, may destroy the world. Watch carefully and erase, while the power is still yours, I say to myself, for all that is put down, once it escapes, may rot its way into a thousand minds.

The passage is reminiscent of a killer line in a song called "Immigration is the Sincerest form of Battery" by the band Every Time I Die: "It is better to destroy than to create what is meaningless."

Williams warns us to destroy all sub-standard work - erase it while you can still control it - before it does any damage. The song makes a similar point.

The song itself, I think, is a reference to a great film called 8 1/2 by Federico Fellini. The film is about a young director struggling to make a film that never gets made. It's basically a film about a film that can't be filmed. Guido, the filmmaker says: "It's better to destroy than create what's unnecessary."

Paterson came first, in 1958. 8 1/2 was made in 1963, and the song was recorded in the 2000s.

It's heady stuff:
The artist as perfectionist / struggling with lack of control
Bad ideas as dangerous / poisonous
The responsibilities of creators
Creator's shame of juvenilia


William Carlos Williams on Nothingness

Book 2, part 3 begins with this short poem:

Look for the nul
defeats it all

the N of all

that rock, the blank
that holds them up

which pulled away -
the rock's

their fall. Look
for that nul

that's past all

the death of all
that's past

all being.

Try reading it this way:

Look / for that nul / that's past all / seeing
The death of all / that's past / all being

The "nul" (Null = nothingness) is the "Blank that holds them up" The null "which pulled away (causes) the rock's their fall" The Null underlies and holds up everything. Nothingness is the foundation of being. The fact that there is anything is dependent on the fact that there could be nothing.

Look for it!


The Structure of Paterson (so far)

I'm just starting to get into Paterson now, but I'm picking up on the pattern. Williams is braiding 3 or 4 separate story lines together so that they all interrupt each other. We have a straightforward historical narrative, items from local newspapers, a meandering free verse poem that follows his walking around town, and mixed up scraps of correspondence.

The river and the falls feature prominently in the book with lots of references to water:

with the roar of the river / forever in our ears ...
challenging our waking

the pouring waters of their hair ...
the gathered spray


Paterson: An Introduction

William Carlos Williams was born in Rutherford (Northeast NJ, across the river from New York City.) Rutherford itself is just south of Paterson, which is NJs 3rd largest city, behind Newark and Jersey City. Williams epic poem "Paterson" is a monument to, and personification of, the city.

Paterson is a hilly, industrial town whose borders are partially defined by the Passaic River.

Paterson, within Passaic County, within New Jersey

The Great Falls of the Passaic River

Paterson, defined by the Passaic


Late Pynchon

I finished Bleeding Edge last week. It was...good.

Thomas Pynchon is a certified genius and a literary giant. Some of his earlier books, V, The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity's Rainbow are amazing perfect masterpieces that will twist up your brain for years. This is the problem. He was too good.

It seems like he's in cruise control now. Where his earlier books were capital-L Literature, his newer work is just fiction. Vineland, Inherent Vice, and Bleeding Edge are probably his 3 weakest books. But they're good books! Just not Peak Pynchon-level good. His early work is so dang good that his later stuff just seems like filler.

Frustratingly, he's shown sings of old self in his new work. Lots of people liked Mason & Dixon. (I didn't care for it, but still..) Against the Day was really great too.

I hope that he knows. I hope he's just easing into retirement. Tossing out pretty decent books with little effort. Making bucks.

Kurt Vonnegut (so good!) famously gave all his books grades, A-F, like a report card. And he knew which ones were good and which ones weren't. I hope Pynchon is similarly self-aware.

This is blasphemy, but here's how I would grade him:

V. (B+)
The Crying of Lot 49  (A)
Gravity's Rainbow  (A+)
Vineland  (C)
Mason & Dixon  (B-)
Against the Day  (A)
Inherent Vice  (C)
Bleeding Edge  (B-)


Bleeding Edge Cover Analysis

The cover art for Bleeding Edge is typically, Pynchon-esquelly, complicated. The thing has about 10 layers of symbolism, referencing skyscrapers, city streets, data centers, older Pynchon novels, and more. There is even a visual trick built into the printing process -- the cover appears black and white but shimmers into color when you look at it from another angle (couldn't possibly be anymore Pynchon-y.)

Here's a good breakdown of the cover:


Perfect Ben

If anyone asks me what kind of writer Ben Marcus is, I will use this single quote from "Against Attachment", part of chapter 5 in "Leaving the Sea" to explain.

"Graves were called homes, and apologies known as writing were carved in their surface. Rotten bags were called people."

Maybe one more, from "First Love."

"The shovels we use to cleave the air in two - and possibly reveal a person we might fail against - were once abbreviated as hands. [...] When we faced off with a person, the sound of our four shovels colliding produced a shield of silent, wind-free air known as home. This was when there were only two choices how to behave, on or off. We would apparently put some objects into our mistake tunnel, which was still the main opening in the face, and the tunnel was able to convulse around them and propel them deep into the body's grave, which was then called, I think, a belly."


The Meaning of Leaving the Sea

I am sitting down to read "Leaving the Sea" -- the short piece of writing for which this book is titled. It is basically a six-page sentence. Today is Tuesday, Feb. 18th. It's 11am. It's starting to snow and I could use another cup of coffee. The commute tonight promises to be several hours.

11:06am - Halfway done.

11:14am - OK, that was great.

"...before our house started leaning, started hissing when the wind came up after sunset, a house no different from a gut-shot animal listing into the woods, a woods no different from a spray of wire bursting through the earth, an earth no different from a leaking sack of water, soft in the middle and made of mush..."

Leaving the Sea (the title of the book, and this story specifically) is (I think) about a loss of innocence and a step into constant struggle.

"...so that they could jump on me and ride on me and kick into the place where I would have gills if I were something better that had never tried to leave the sea..."

The sea is our ultimate home. When we left the sea to walk the earth we chose endless struggle over endless gliding and beauty. Oh well.


Poor Sad Fathers

Ben Marcus has said that his parents were normal and loving, but his treatment of father/son characters is profoundly sad.

"He had a large, sad face and he was bald. These men were everywhere. The cattle in our lives we hardly even see."

His stories usually focus on family units or small groups. The father figure is always oppressed. The first 4 stories in Leaving The Sea follow roughly the same pattern.

What Have You Done: A troubled son, newly a father, returns home but cannot love his family. His family doesn't trust him or believe anything he says based on an unsubscribed incident in his past.

I Can Say Many Nice Things: A hapless professor is teaching a course on a cruise ship. His wife doesn't love him, his class doesn't respect him, and he is harried by an unbalanced, young, female student.

The Dark Arts: A young man is mysteriously sick. His girlfriend doesn't love him and his father is a weak and feeble man unable to help.

Rollingwood: A father is asked, unexpectedly, to care for his young son. The son's mother doesn't love him, disappears for days, and the father is forced to juggle work and son without appreciation or love.

Marcus beats on the fathers in his other books too. Notable American Women features a helpless father trapped in a hole, The Flame Alphabet features a father crushed under the weight of mysterious illness, a dying wife, a poison daughter, kidnapping, forced labor, etc. etc. Needless to say, there are a lot of fathers crawling around, hiding in holes, accepting emasculation, failing.


Selection for Feb/March 2014

Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus

We tried "Sea of Hooks" and it didn't work out. So now we'll try "Leaving the Sea" by Ben Marcus. Marcus is my hero and this is his new book of stories. "Sea of Hooks" was bad, so now we're "Leaving the Sea"...get it??



What makes a person brittle? Pain can make you brittle, being like glass or clay, being dropped too many times, being fired at too high a heat, being thrust into the cold, being forced -- all these but also this: an insistence on beauty can make a person brittle.

And all that pushing away of the unbeautiful will make you brittle.

Sea of Hooks
pg. 59