I’m very pleased to announce that I will be interviewed on the June 1st 2012, 6:00pm EST broadcast of Expats Radio at Blogtalkradio.com, hosted by writer/activist “Hurricane” Dean Walker. I want to take the time to thank Dean Walker and everyone over at Expats Media for giving me this opportunity. A future blog post concerning Expats Media and Expats Post is forthcoming. Stay tuned....
Sunday, May 27, 2012
Sunday, May 20, 2012
This novel was released a year before Bret Easton Ellis’s “Less Than Zero” and its success is what actually made Ellis’s novel possible. It was considered an “unexpected” success, but having read it now for the first time, again nearly thirty years after the fact, it’s easy to look back on it and see what it was that made this novel the success that it was at the time. Both McInerney and Ellis are often lumped together, both being given the accolade of having produced a “novel of their generation” but the two writers couldn’t be more different from one another. Whereas Ellis’s style in his debut was more minimalistic and its theme more nihilistic, “Bright Lights, Big City” is a more stylized effort, not as nihilistic but more existential in tone. I imagine that the two writers are often lumped together because they both cover the same ground: young urbanites in the mid-1980s. In Ellis’s case it was Los Angeles. McInerney’s tale is set in New York City.
From page one the novel was not at all what I was expecting it to be. It’s style - written in the second person - was very interesting to me and not at all “distracting” as some who have read this novel before had warned be about. But more importantly, McInerney’s overall style was not what I was expecting to read. It reads more traditional than Ellis’s debut, and there’s a flow to it which mimics the popular culture of the day: fast, short, to the point - echoing an almost “MTV-Like” experience (that is, when MTV was actually a music channel). It is definitely a novel of its time and again, may seem a little dated to some. The New York City in which the nameless protagonist moves is a New York City that no longer exists; but it is a New York City that I remember well, being that I had just entered the workforce at the very time this novel takes place and it is a picture perfect representation of how the city was at that time.
The story is essentially a “slice of life” story. The nameless narrator and protagonist works at a prestigious magazine as a fact checker, barely holding onto his job due to his daily and nightly carousing, most of the time amped up on coke. His wife, a fashion model, had recently left him and his ambitions as a writer have stalled. Throughout it all he tries to put on a brave face to others, coming off like nothing is wrong but internally he is struggling with his failures and his sense of loss - not only losing his wife, but also his mother, who passed away the year before. He spends his time with his friends, jumping from club to club, thinking that this would be a way to avoid the unhappiness he feels. The irony is that he doesn’t find happiness and doesn’t enjoy himself and it only makes him more miserable. There is this constant feeling that he and his peers must keep moving but none of them ever actually “arrive.” He moves in a world where the idea of being in the “right” club is equated with being the most important thing one can do in life. It is a world where celebrities and fashion models are asked for their opinions about the world. It is a world where most people you encounter are bombed out of their minds on drugs, looking for the next person to bring home at night. Meanwhile, the real America is circulating all around them: the army of homeless people, the merchants selling stolen merchandise on the street, an older generation that had long lost its idealism and drown their perceived failures in alcohol, a world in which one mistake can put you out on the street in a heartbeat. It was “Morning in America” for some but not for everyone.
All in all I really enjoyed this novel. It is a portrait of a time and place in which I could easily relate to - and again not necessarily the characters in the story, who are essentially “Yuppies” - but being that I was working in the “belly of the beast” at the time this was enjoying its success, it brought back just how different the city was in those days and most importantly, after thirty years, how little, fundamentally, things have changed. Definitely recommended. If you haven’t read this, you should. A fine novel overall.
Rating: * * * * *
Thursday, May 17, 2012
It took me nearly thirty years to finally getting around to reading this novel. Had I read it at the time of its release (1985) I don’t know what I would have thought of it. It was a huge deal at the time and Bret Easton Ellis was being touted as a “new voice of a generation”, and quite specifically, my generation (Ellis is only about two years older than I am). At that time, the trials and tribulations of ultra-wealthy Los Angeles post-high school kids would have meant absolutely nothing to me and perhaps of this perception I avoided actually reading the book for many many years. But of course curiosity got to me, as well as other people’s recommendations. Thirty years on, I’m obviously in a much different place than I was then, when I was still a rebellious-minded 19 year old. I figured distance would allow me to look at this with a fresh perspective.
In 1985, I was about the same age as the characters in the story; characters with names like “Clay”, “Trent”, “Rip”, and “Blair”. Having spent a lot of my teenage years hanging around the East Village and the Lower East Side in New York City, these characters and their life experiences couldn’t have been more far removed from my own experiences. Social class certainly has a lot to do with this as well. The characters in this novel are, as I said, ultra-wealthy and ultra-spoiled. Their parents are filmmakers, Hollywood directors, magazine editors, or in some way involved with the high life in Los Angeles. They all live in plush mansions, have swimming pools and own the most (then) modern gadgets, and they all attend the “good” schools. They spend their time going to clubs, going to parties, eating and drinking in expensive restaurants, all of them, dysfunctional and drug addled - coke, the main drug choice. I couldn’t have been more removed from this social scene.
The story revolves around the narrator, “Clay”, who returns to Los Angeles after having been away at college in New Hampshire. From the beginning you can see that he has changed somewhat from being away - although four months away from home wouldn’t seem long enough for an individual to “change” all that much. However once he begins reconnecting with his friends little by little you begin to see how detached he is from them, although he suffers from the same issues that most of them suffer from. The characters in the story are utterly self-absorbed and obsessed with fitting in with their peers, where one little “faux-pas” such as wearing the wrong article of clothing could be get you ostracized. As noted earlier, they spend nearly all their time going to clubs, parties and doing massive amounts of coke. Their parents are largely absent, or if not totally absent, completely disconnected from what their kids are doing, preferring to care only about themselves and their lot in life. Here is where the “generational” theme comes in - the idea of being “lost”, troubled, and completely ignored.
Ellis’s style is minimalistic, stripped down to its bare bones. Written in the first person present tense, it almost has the feeling of a journal as “Clay” meanders through his four weeks at home before having to return to New England for the next semester. The style is engaging enough to keep the reader interested in wanting to know what’s going to happen - and it is towards the last third of the novel where the story takes a decidedly dark turn. Suddenly, all the tediousness and emptiness of the characters actions starts to make sense and the story that is actually being told begins to unfold. Here is a group of young people who are totally without a moral compass, so self-absorbed that they have no ability to empathize with the plight of others, or even show the least bit compassion to those that are supposed to be their friends. And herein lies the crux of what the novel is about. It is a “generational statement” and even though these characters are from well off families and have everything they could ever want, there’s still a sort of “emptiness”, this giant hole in their lives where they can’t quite figure out what their purpose in life is. In spite of it all, they are lost, rudderless, dysfunctional - yet no one cares - not even themselves.
This is the second book by Ellis that I have read. I started with what was considered his “Magnum Opus”, the controversial “American Psycho”, a novel I had a tough time getting through due to its tedium and the main character’s obsession with designer clothing (which was pointed out nearly every other paragraph). This, to me, is by far a superior novel and for those who have never read Ellis, this would be one to start with. In the end, I enjoyed this novel very much. It’s a very good read and although it may seem a little “dated” now, it doesn’t take away from the story being told. It may even be a source of nostalgia for some, being that it is picture perfect of the time in which it is set and Ellis does a wonderful job in capturing that. Recommended.
Rating: * * * *
Friday, May 11, 2012
I’ve been working my way through all of Chuck Palahniuk’s books over the past year, reading them in order (for no particular reason, really, other than to watch how his work progresses - or not). I am up to 2005’s “Haunted”, a novel mainly comprised of 23 short stories, all strung together with a narrative arc that, again, says an awful lot about the state of contemporary American culture. At first glance, one would get the impression that it’s a riff on “Reality TV” - and there definitely is that element to it - but underneath there is much more to mine here. Yes, it’s definitely a commentary on the American addictions: fame & celebrity, but it’s also about the willingness of people who love to bitch and complain, those who love to be critical of everything around them yet do absolutely nothing to make things better - a theme that I have been thinking an awful lot about in recent months, scouring the internet. Labeled as a “horror” novel, but not in the traditional sense. There are allusions to the story about the night when Byron, Shelly, etc, were holed up in a house on a stormy night and decided to see who could come up with the most horrifying story. This is the model on which “Haunted” is based. Only the “horror” of these stories do not come with fangs, capes, transformations, ghosts, etc. They are the horrors of every day, the horrors of the culture, the horrors of those who are permanently on the outside of society - a running theme for Palahniuk.
The structure of the novel is truly original. Written in the first person plural, the narrator is simultaneously in the background and part of the group of severely dysfunctional characters that populate the story. Each character is nameless, save for the snarky nicknames they had given one another (i.e. “Saint Gut-Free”, “Miss America,” “Missing Link” and so on). The story revolves around a group of would-be writers who decide to answer an ad to give up three months of their lives in order to write their “masterpiece” and are taken and locked away in an abandoned theater, deprived of food, water, heat, etc in order to enhance their “suffering” to help them produce their masterworks. Soon, the group of writers decide that their “suffering” would make a great story in and of itself, devising a way - in “Survivor-like” fashion, to change the narrative for their own advantage in order for them all to become “famous” for their plight. Each character tells their own story, some of which are invented and others confessional tales about their particular dysfunction.
Each of the stories could stand on their own and as I was reading it, had wondered whether these stories were written with the intention of being an actual short story collection or whether they were written with the intentional purpose to blend with the overall narrative. Either way, the stories, taken on their own, make this book worth the read alone. Taken all together, what you have here is a truly original work which explores the many differing “horrors” of contemporary culture in America. Some of the stories are pretty harsh (as are the acts that take place within the overall story. It is a horror novel, after all) but some are not grotesque as in blood-splatter-gore-slasher type stories one would expect. Some of them are horrifying by the mere fact that they are so commonplace, so recognizable in the world today; the horrific things people do to themselves and to one another for all kinds of insane and idiotic reasons. Definitely worth checking out.
Rating: * * * *
Sunday, May 6, 2012
“I think more than writers, the major influences on me have been European movies, jazz, and Abstract Expressionism.” - Don DeLillo
As writers, we each come to the table with something unique - or should. While the old adage “there’s nothing new under the sun” is often true, still - there’s always a way of taking what has gone before and somehow making it your own; and this can be done by the simple act of being honest with yourself and creating something that you feel in your heart and your guts; to approach what you do with what is uniquely you without trying to copy someone else or writing something you think people want to read. We usually start off by copying those we admire but sooner or later you have to find your own voice, find your own way of approaching the page. And we all have different aspirations, our own vision, and since we are individuals with differing experiences and sensibilities, naturally what comes out on the page is going to be something different.
In his essay, “Fires”, Raymond Carver discussed his influences and the general notion of what influences a writer - and it’s not only other writing. For him (as I’m sure it is for many others) it was life experiences, day to day observations, snippets of overheard conversation, memories, however vague or abstract. All of it goes into the mix. When I came across the Don DeLillo quote at the top of this post, it occurred to me that this is not only true in writing but in all art forms as well. There are many things that get thrown into the pot when we are creating something, even perhaps when we are unaware of it.
When I first started writing I wrote poetry exclusively for many years and I was coming to it as a musician who loved to read and write. I had no formal training, no writing classes, no MFA program that I attended. Poetry seemed like the natural thing being that I was a songwriter. The influences on those old poems were other poets, yes, but mainly they were more informed by my experiences, thoughts, observations, inward contemplation, political beliefs, current events, social trends, relationships, music, art, history, and so on. I wrote mainly “free verse” poetry, meaning, if I want to be honest with you and myself, that I was totally uninterested in form or even the “mechanics” of poetry. I couldn’t care less what constituted a sonnet, or a ballad, or whatever forms poetry takes. I had no schooling in writing poetry nor was I interested in any. So perhaps they weren’t “poems” in the true sense of the word, but merely “snapshots” of a particular thought or observation at the time they were being written. Essentially I was writing by ear and the type of poetry I was writing certainly wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. As with fiction writing, or any other kind of writing, even the reader comes to it with their own sensibilities; and after many years of submitting poetry to literally hundreds of magazines, journals and publishers, you learn rather quickly how those sensibilities differ from one editor to the next, from one reader to the next. Poems rejected by one can quite often be accepted by others, as it had happened for me. But I managed a couple of chapbooks and landed these “poems” in about forty journals of varying type over the years, so they obviously worked on some people.
Fiction writing is a whole different ballgame and I came to it pretty much the same way. I soon learned that this approach wasn’t going to work and I was going to have to think things through a little if I wanted to come up with something viable. The first problem I encountered was what to write about. What was this novel going to be? I did what most writers do, I suppose. I “wrote what I knew.” I also took some cues from the novelists I was reading at the time, which was mostly experimental and Beat writers. Literally flying by the seat of my pants - and not really having any “writer friends” (other than the other poets I’d met via the small press scene at the time) - I basically went in blind. The books on writing didn’t help at all, since most of them seemed geared towards those who were writing genre fiction or those who sought to write something “marketable.” So I just dipped into the pool of writing influences I had at the time and went from there. It took a long time and what I wound up with was something of a story threaded within all the experiments and literary ideas that appealed to me at the time: stream of consciousness, cut-up writing, poetry, surrealism, etc. There were other influences too: film, particularly foreign films. It took many years to complete and in the end, I felt I had a flawed piece of work, but a worthy attempt nonetheless for a first effort. This novel, “November Rust,” wound up sitting in a drawer for a couple of years before I decided to release it - mainly for the hell of it. A lot of work went into it, why let it rot in a drawer? I figured the response to it would be the same as the response I got from my poetry. Some will like it, some won’t. It wasn’t the end of the world. In the meantime, I started thinking about my next book, and this is where I had the most trouble. I wanted to do something different from the first book, the question was, what exactly?
When I began the next novel, “Nadería”, I was pretty much in the same boat. I had written about 40-50 pages and thought that it wasn’t really anything different from the first book. I was at a loss. So I spent some time “learning”, reading books on writing, reading theory, discussing ideas with the few writer friends I had, still - nothing was happening. The problem, I later discovered, was that I was too “gunked up” with literary theory and it was, at least for me, blocking me from moving forward. I kept asking myself, “What is it that I am attempting to do here?” and seriously thinking about what kind of writer I wanted to be. An epiphany of sorts came like a bolt out of the blue one morning while sitting on the subway. It occurred to me that the reason why I was so blocked was because I was standing in my own way. I should approach writing in the same manner in which I approached music all those years. With music, I never limited myself. I was open to all kinds of music, listened to everything imaginable, absorbed it, and whatever I had written, threw all those influences and ideas into the mix to come up with something that would (hopefully) be my own thing. Why was it that I was limiting myself when it came to fiction? Why not approach it the same way? It was exactly the question I needed to ask myself.
Feeling inspired, nothing was off-limits. I began to read books outside my comfort zone, reading all kinds of books: fiction, poetry, history, biographies, you name it. I soon realized that I had many interests in many different things that weren’t necessarily literary related: art, film, philosophy, photography, music, history; why not dip into these waters as well? I began thinking “musically”, not that the prose would be “musical” but taking the same approach I took when writing music all those years - open the windows. Let it all in. Throw it all in, mix things up, and most importantly, remember that you are writing fiction.
Remember that you’re writing fiction. That was really the key to everything. It slowly dawned on me - sort of like a sunlight coming through the window - that I had been so influenced by the “write what you know” mantra that I had forgotten about all the other things I actually know. It wasn’t about what I experienced personally, but also observation and knowledge, the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes, the ability to project yourself into the mind or situation of another, the ability to listen to other people when they talk: their thoughts, fears, hopes, dreams, stories, experiences, and so on; all of it ingredients for what can potentially be compelling storytelling. Once I stepped outside of myself, the floodgate of ideas opened and I suddenly realized that I had a treasure trove of ideas for stories that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with me. It occurred to me that I can say an awful lot via the “lives” of invented characters and their stories. Like I said, it was a sort of creative epiphany - one that may have been obvious to some all along - but for me, something I had to come around to understand and see clearly. It allowed me to shed the creative shackles that I had initially imposed on myself and I stopped worrying about labels, stopped worrying about whether what I was doing fit into any particular category, whether or not what I was writing was “Literary” and just focus on the storytelling element and allowing the thing to be what it wants to be. And it feels great too. Anything is possible and if one allows himself that sense of freedom there’s a good chance that eventually one could come up with something that is uniquely one’s own. And that is the goal here, isn’t it?
Saturday, May 5, 2012
Furthering my exploration of William Faulkner, this 1931 novel was certainly a strange and dark one. According to Faulkner, this was a novel that was “a cheap idea because it was deliberately conceived to make money. I had been writing books for about five years, which got published but not bought.” A strange thought in my mind since I sincerely feel that this novel was way ahead of its time. It reads like something that could have easily been written today. The plot is complex but at it’s heart it’s a brilliant “noir” concerning rape, kidnapping, bootlegging, false accusations, class differences and of course a commentary on the “southern way of life.” It is truly a dark and disturbing story. And the writing is simply wonderful, as this passage will attest:
A final saffron-colored light lay upon the ceiling and the upper walls, tinged already with purple by the serrated palisade of Main Street high against the western sky. She watched it fade as the successive yawns of the shade consumed it. She watched the final light condense into the clock face, and the dial change from a round orifice in the darkness to a disc suspended in nothingness, the original chaos, and change in turn to a crystal ball holding in its still and cryptic depths the ordered chaos of the intricate and shadowy world upon whose scarred flanks the old wounds whirl onward at dizzy speed into darkness lurking with new disasters.
I don’t see how Faulkner felt that this novel was written purely “to make money” since it is far from something just “spit out” for the masses, even by today’s standards. It is artfully written, and the story is artfully told, despite it’s “potboiler” elements. And despite the crime fiction sensibility this story has, it’s also not a “beach read”, something disposable and easy. You have to pay attention here - as with all of Faulkner’s novels I’ve read thus far. It was said that this was the novel that was Faulkner’s commercial breakthrough and established Faulkner’s reputation as a novelist. After reading this, it’s easy to see why. A highly recommended read.
Rating: * * * *
Tuesday, May 1, 2012
This was another book I bought at Coliseum Books when I was seventeen. I had already read his two best known books, “Animal Farm” and “1984” in school - both of which I enjoyed immensely - so I was curious to read the other works he had available. “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” was the first one I chose (along with “Down and Out in Paris and London” on the same day). This novel was my next foray into expanding my reading horizons at the time and I can clearly recall lying in bed at night reading this book for hours, unable to put it down.
The story is about a man named Gordon Comstock who forgoes his job and life of privilege in an open “war” with what he terms as “the money-god”. He leaves his job as a well paid copywriter at an advertising agency in order to take on a low paying job so he could write his poetry. Needless to say things do not go so well for him. He both enjoys his new life of destitution while at the same time having disdain for it and over time becomes bitter and neurotic, becoming obsessed with how he sees what the role of money plays in social relationships. The Aspidistra plant serves as a symbol for those who (as Gordon sees) desire to “make good” and settle down, to be the very thing he was at war with. But there is a twist, of course and I would recommend that those who have never read this novel to read it and see the story through. It is definitely well worth the discussion.
I read this book at a time when I, too, was at “war” with the growing sensibilities of the Reagan Era, so it had a special resonance for me. It also continued to push me further down the road to explore writers and novels that has something to say, something that was more than just entertainment, and coming at a time when I began to become more socially aware. I also suspect that in some small way it would be influential on my politics in the years that followed.
I eventually came to read all of Orwell’s novels, but this one I would list as my favorite out of all his fiction. He had written many non-fiction works as well, all of which are worth exploring.