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What To Make Of David Foster Wallace As Portrayed In ‘The End of the Tour’?

By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

David Foster Wallace was a larger-than-life figure even before he committed suicide in September 2008 at age 46. By then, he’d published two novels, including the 1,079-page Infinite Jest, as well as several volumes of essays and short fiction concerned with the minutiae of consciousness, what it meant to occupy one’s own life.

In many ways, his perspective — an idiosyncratic mix of cultural engagement and reticence — offered a model of how a writer might operate in an increasingly distracted world. How to deal with overload? Embrace it. But embrace it smartly, with full awareness of its contradictions and its lures. Such a sensibility sits at the center of both Wallace’s fiction and nonfiction; Infinite Jest revolves in part around a film so all-consuming that its viewers can do nothing else but watch until they die.

It’s also central to The End of the Tour, the new film featuring Jason Segel as Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as journalist David Lipsky, who spent five days in 1996 with the author for a Rolling Stone feature that never materialized; their interviews were later developed into Lipsky’s 2010 book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace.

There’s an irony to this, for The End of the Tour is all about our relationship to image, both in the story it tells, of a writer at the very moment he became an icon, and also in the way it tells that story. The movie makes this explicit by framing its main narrative as extended flashback, a memory play provoked by Wallace’s death. It gives the action a bittersweet, nostalgic edge it did not have — could not have had — in actual life.

And yet, that raises the question of what it means to see Wallace portrayed as a character in a film. “A writer who courted contradiction and paradox,” Christian Lorentzen described him this month in New York magazine, “who could come on as a curmudgeon and a scold, who emerged from an avant-garde tradition and never retreated into conventional realism, he has been reduced to a wisdom-dispensing sage on the one hand and shorthand for the Writer As Tortured Soul on the other.”

Wallace was a study in incongruities: compassionate yet also critical, empathetic and dismissive, obsessive but at times overblown. Add to that Lorentzen’s observation that “Wallace started the process” of his own mythologizing, and we begin to see the complexities that energized and enervated him, the notion of an author locked in conversation, or even mortal combat, with himself.

This is what The End of the Tour aspires to trace, revolving as it does around the tension between the private and the public individual. Wallace invites Lipsky into his home, where the reporter catalogs everything. Both are always aware that their conversation, their relationship, is a contrivance, and yet that it might also yield something real.

At one point, Wallace digs into the experience of depression, the way it makes him feel both better (by allowing him to see through the illusion of meaning, of purpose) and worse (by rendering him nonfunctional) than everyone else. That he never uses the word “depression” is fitting, since he tended to be circumspect about his mental state.

Still, it is impossible not to bring what we know about the author — of his life and death, yes, but also of his writing — to this moment and, indeed, to the entire film.

As for how this affects our appreciation of Wallace, I don’t know the answer. Throughout his career, he was a challenging writer, expansive, consumed by ambiguities, doubling back on his own arguments, his own narratives. (There’s a reason Infinite Jest concludes with nearly 100 pages of endnotes.)

In “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” — his novella-length piece of reportage, first published in Harper’s, about a week on a cruise ship — he takes us from judgment to consideration in his portrayals of his fellow passengers.

“I have seen fuchsia pantsuits and pink sport coats and maroon-and-purple warm-ups and white loafers worn without socks,” he writes. “… I have heard upscale adult U.S. citizens ask the ship’s Guest Relations Desk whether snorkeling necessitates getting wet, whether the trapshooting will be held outside, whether the crew sleeps on board, and what time the Midnight Buffet is.”

What Wallace is describing is a kind of desperation, a desperation that repels him but to which he relates. This is the key to his writing, the way he keeps surprising not just us but also himself.

The End of the Tour does not traffic in such complexities; that is not its intent. It’s more interested in the interplay between Wallace and Lipsky, or Segel and Eisenberg. As we watch, both wrestle with the interview, its curious mix of intimacy and distance, and also with the requirements of publicity, “[t]he whole going around and reading in bookstores thing,” which, Lorentzen reports, Wallace believed was “turning writers into kind of penny-ante or cheap versions of celebrities.”

Such a tension brings us back to Wallace’s creative project: image versus substance yet again.

“My whole life, I’ve been a fraud,” he begins his devastating short story “Good Old Neon.” “I’m not exaggerating. Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people. Mostly to be liked or admired.”

The twist is that in admitting this, he also undermines it, reveals his authenticity. Irony? Maybe, but in the end, that seems too easy. Better, I’d suggest, to call it living: portrait of the artist as a human being.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Jason Segel takes on the role of David Foster Wallace in “The End of the Tour.” (Handout/TNS)

Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set A Watchman’ Reveals A Darker Side Of Maycomb

By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Go Set a Watchman: A Novel by Harper Lee; Harper (278 pages, $27.99)
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It would be a mistake to read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman as a sequel to her 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird.

Yes, it takes place a generation after the earlier book, involving a visit from Scout Finch — now 26 and using her given name, Jean Louise — to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, from New York, where she has gone to live. Yes, Maycomb has changed: Scout’s older brother, Jem, we learn in the opening chapter, is dead, victim of a congenitally disordered heart, and her father, Atticus, has not only grown old but also darker and more compromised.

There are references to a trial from the past, during which Atticus defended a black man against charges of raping a white woman: “Consent was easier to prove,” Lee writes, “than under normal conditions — the defendant had only one arm.”

Such a description recalls Tom Robinson, whose trial for a similar offense is at the center of To Kill a Mockingbird. “His left arm was fully twelve inches shorter than his right,” the author explains in that novel, “and hung dead at his side. It ended in a small shriveled hand.”

And yet, those two trials come to very different outcomes; Tom was memorably convicted in To Kill a Mockingbird, even with no evidence against him, whereas in Go Set a Watchman, Atticus “accomplished what was never before or afterwards done in Maycomb County: He won acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge.”

That’s just one of many points of divergence or overlap between the novels, which are related in a complicated way.

According to numerous accounts, Go Set a Watchman is the earliest version of the manuscript that became To Kill a Mockingbird, acquired by Lippincott in 1957 and subjected, under the guidance of editor Tay Hohoff, to what Smithsonian Magazine once called “a title-on-down revision.” What does this mean for us as readers? That we can’t help but engage with Go Set a Watchman through a filter of comparison.

Lee introduces us to Maycomb, its history and inconsistencies, as if we have never been here before. We learn, in a passage virtually identical to one in To Kill a Mockingbird, of the town’s origin as county seat, after a tavern keeper named Sinkfield “made the surveyors drunk one evening, induced them to bring forward their maps and charts, lop off a little here, add a bit there, and adjust the center of the county to meet his requirements.”

We encounter Atticus’ even-handedness: his insistence on “always (trying) to put himself in his client’s shoes.” In Go Set a Watchman, however, this is not a marker of his moral dependability but rather of his moral corruption.

Corruption? Yes — for this is not the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird. In Go Set a Watchman, he has turned a treacherous corner, aligning with the citizen’s council and the Ku Klux Klan.

“Now think about this,” he tells his daughter. “What would happen if all the Negroes in the South were suddenly given full civil rights? I’ll tell you, there’d be another Reconstruction. Would you want your state governments run by people who don’t know how to run ’em? … We’re outnumbered, you know.”

This is the conflict of the novel, Jean Louise’s struggle to come to some accommodation with a father who is not who she believed he was.

Throughout the first part of the book, Lee builds the tension, drawing us in slowly, revealing the Maycomb her protagonist thought she knew. We visit Finch’s Landing, experience flashbacks to her childhood with Jem and Dill (although not Boo Radley) and meet her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Henry Clinton.

The pace can be, at times, meandering, but the focus appears to sharpen with her discovery, among her father’s reading materials, of a racist tract called “The Black Plague.” “The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her,” Lee writes, “the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, ‘He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a gentlemen,’ had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.”

That’s a vivid setup, and it indicates the promise Hohoff recognized in this draft nearly 60 years ago. Promise, however, remains the operative word, for Go Set a Watchman is an apprentice effort, and it falls apart in the second half.

Despite its potential for drama, Lee develops her story through long dialogue sequences that read less like conversation than competing arguments. There is little sense of urgency, and key aspects of the narrative — Jean Louise’s naiveté, for one thing, her inability to see Maycomb for what it is — are left largely unresolved.

If I’m hesitant to level such a criticism, it’s because, although Go Set a Watchman comes marketed as an autonomous novel, it is most interesting as a literary artifact.

How did Lee take the frame of this fiction and collapse it to create To Kill a Mockingbird, finding a narrative fluency only hinted at within this draft? How did she refine her language, her scene construction, discover a way to enlarge what are here little more than political and social commonplaces, to expose a universal human core?

Regardless of the answers, Go Set a Watchman shows where she began. It is a starker book than To Kill a Mockingbird, more reactive to its moment; a common theme involves what its characters regard as the overreach of the U.S. Supreme Court, which at the time Lee was writing had recently ruled on school desegregation in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka.

Most interesting, however, is the glimpse it offers of Jean Louise as an adult, her desire to stake out a territory of her own.

It is difficult, knowing the history of both this novel and its author, not to read those longings as belonging to Lee herself, the reasons for her own long New York exile, her silence in the wake of To Kill a Mockingbird. That too raises questions we can never answer about why Go Set a Watchman is being published now.

Certainly, it changes — as it must — our sense of Atticus, although that is complicated by this being not a follow-up but instead an early version of the book. At what point did Lee soften her portrayal? And what does it mean to read this version of him now?

In the end, it suggests a vivid set of contradictions, as much between the author and the character as between the character and himself.

“Hell is eternal apartness,” Lee writes. “What had she done that she must spend the rest of her years reaching out with yearning for them, making secret trips to long ago, making no journey to the present? I am their blood and bones, I have dug in this ground, this is my home. But I am not their blood, the ground doesn’t care who digs it, I am a stranger at a cocktail party.”

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

‘The Ferguson Report’ Offers A Damning Indictment

By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The timing couldn’t be more appropriate: Last week, barely five days after Dylann Storm Roof allegedly killed nine people at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Justice Department’s The Ferguson Report (New Press; 174 pages, $20 paper), first made public in March, came out in book form.

What do these events have in common? Nothing, and everything. One is an act of domestic terror, the other an account of what appears to be a long-standing pattern of discrimination by the Ferguson, Mo., police department. But what they really trace is a kind of through line, in which we are reminded, again, how deeply disrupted our supposedly “post-racial” society is over the question of race.

“One of the hallmarks of American racism has been the devaluation of black lives,” writes Theodore M. Shaw, former director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in his introduction to “The Ferguson Report.” “… Ferguson puts the lie to twenty-first century America’s claim of post-racialism.”

That’s not new information. Ferguson, after all — like Charleston — is part of a continuum. “Black lives matter,” Shaw observes. “Yet even after Ferguson, unarmed black men continue to die at the hands of police.”

Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray: This is just a sampling from the last 12 months.

Still, The Ferguson Report is especially damning, for it reveals an institutional culture that targets African Americans. From the report: “Nearly 90% of documented force used by FPD officers was used against African Americans. In every canine bite incident for which racial information is available, the person bitten was African American.”

And this: “We have found substantial evidence of racial bias among police and court staff in Ferguson. For example, we discovered emails circulated by police supervisors and court staff that stereotype racial minorities as criminals, inkling one email that joked about an abortion by an African-American woman being a means of crime control.”

Abortion as a form of crime control? If a single image can encapsulate an entire story, this one does.

Part of the problem is that Ferguson’s policing has been corrupted by a civic culture that values revenue generation over public safety. According to the report, “City and police leadership pressure officers to write citations, independent of any public safety need, and rely on citation productivity to fund the City budget.” As a consequence, “[o]fficers sometimes write six, eight, or, in at least one instance, fourteen citations for a single encounter. Indeed, officers told us that some compete to see who can issue the largest number of citations during a single stop.”

It is not the job of the police to serve the citizens, in other words, but to shake them down.

To be fair, this is not overtly a racial issue, but a social one. The insistence on maximizing income closely mirrors America’s corporate culture, in which growth trumps all concerns and workers are expected to produce more and more by executives who see employees and customers alike as commodities.

In a community, though, such as Ferguson — where an African American majority is policed by a largely white constabulary — race can’t help but be a dominating force. “Data collected by the Ferguson Police Department from 2012 to 2014,” the report explains, “shows that African Americans account for 85% of vehicle stops, 90% of citations, and 93% of arrests made by FPD officers, despite comprising only 67% of Ferguson’s population.”

I could go on, but it’s too depressing — or perhaps not depressing enough. By that, I mean that even in light of all this data, change is not assured.

The Justice Department, for instance — even as it issued this report — did not bring federal charges against police officer Darren Wilson, who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson. When officials such as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio have spoken out on police violence, they’ve been accused of not having their officers’ backs.

Meanwhile, in South Carolina, debate is amping up again over the Confederate flag that flies at the state capital. Finally, I want to say, although this is about 150 years overdue. And yet, it seems to fit a pattern: Something happens, and we talk about it for a while, then forget until it happens again.

And happen again, it will. If The Ferguson Report has anything to tell us, it is that. It is a chilling, disturbing account of police dysfunction, but even more of social dysfunction, of the lies we tell ourselves.

In Ferguson, the report reveals, officials argue “that it is a lack of ‘personal responsibility’ among African-American members of the Ferguson community that causes African Americans to experience disproportionate harm under Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement.” These same officials, the report continues, routinely fix tickets for one another, as if the law did not apply to them.

Personal responsibility. I believe in it. As I believe that the law is a two-way street. The Ferguson Report, however, insists otherwise, reminding us in the clear, concise language of an affidavit, how far we have to go.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Milan Kundera’s ‘Festival Of Insignificance’ On Being And Smallness

By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The Festival of Insignificance: A Novel by Milan Kundera, translated from the French by Linda Asher; Harper (128 pages, $23.99)
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There’s not much to Milan Kundera’s 10th novel, The Festival of Insignificance — his first work of fiction since 2000’s Ignorance — but then that’s part of the point. Revolving around five middle-aged friends living in Paris, it offers not a narrative so much as a collection of vignettes, or reflections: the novel as a set of asides.

“Time moves on,” one of Kundera’s characters tells us. “Because of time, first we’re alive — which is to say: indicted and convicted. Then we die, and for a few more years we live on in the people who knew us, but very soon there’s another change; the dead become the old dead, no one remembers them any longer and they vanish into the void; only a few of them, very, very rare ones, leave their names behind in people’s memories, but, lacking any authentic witnesses now, any actual recollection, they become marionettes.”

This, of course — the issue of meaning in the face of human vanity — has long been at the center of Kundera’s work. His first novel, The Joke, published in Czechoslovakia in 1967, describes in part the fallout from a satirical postcard (“OPTIMISM IS THE OPIUM OF THE PEOPLE!” it declares. “THE HEALTHY ATMOSPHERE STINKS! LONG LIVE TROTSKY!”) sent by a Czech student to a young woman he wishes to seduce: humor that cannot be read as humor, in other words.

A similar theme motivates The Festival of Insignificance, which also traffics in jokes, or more accurately, in our inability to respond to jokes anymore. “We’ve known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world nor reshape it, nor hold off its dangerous headlong rush,” a character named Ramon explains at a Paris cocktail party. “There’s only one possible resistance: to not take it seriously. But I think our jokes have lost their power.”

Ramon is talking to a friend named Caliban, after the Shakespeare character; Caliban likes to pretend he is Pakistani, speaking an invented language of nonsense syllables. And yet this only makes Kundera’s case, for what once might have been a surrealist put-on, a bit of personal performance art, now comes loaded with risk.

“If some servant to truth should discover that you’re French!” Ramon continues. “Then of course you’ll be suspect! He’ll think you must have some shady reason to be hiding your identity! He’ll alert the police! You’ll be interrogated! You’ll explain that your Pakistani character was a joke. They’ll laugh at you: What a stupid alibi! You must certainly have been up to no good! They’ll put you in handcuffs!” Joking, he concludes, “has become dangerous. … It really was the start of a new era. The twilight of joking! The post-joke age!”

That Kundera has his tongue half in his cheek is part of the charm: Look at all those breathless exclamation marks. At the same time, he is completely serious, as he has always been, about the folly of our machinations, political or otherwise.

It’s tempting to regard Kundera as apolitical, despite his long Parisian exile. (He abandoned Czechoslovakia for France in 1975.) But that’s an oversimplification, for in works such as The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he pioneered a sensibility framed around larger notions of liberation and freedom, using sexual politics as a metaphor for affairs of state.

“What seemed to be political fanaticism,” he writes in the former novel, “was only an excuse, a parable, a manifesto of fidelity, a coded plaint of unrequited love.” It’s a brilliant move, not only for its sheer subversive power — critiquing a government in terms it does not recognize — but also for its understanding of desire as essential, equally, to politics and ardor.

In The Festival of Insignificance, Kundera extrapolates such a sensibility to our terror-besotted world. This is not to say the new book offers commentary, exactly; that would be far too great a weight for this thin and intentionally inconsequential novel to bear. “Only from the heights of an infinite good mood,” the author writes in these pages, quoting Hegel, “can you observe below you the eternal stupidity of me, and laugh over it.” That has been his purpose, or one of them, all along.

In that sense, The Festival of Insignificance offers both a continuation of Kundera’s signature investigations and a reaction to the toxicity of the present day. It’s not a brilliant book; Kundera, 86, hasn’t written a brilliant book since 1986’s The Art of the Novel, which traces an alternative tradition of fiction, what we might call the anti-novel, with roots in the work of Laurence Sterne and Denis Diderot.

“I often hear it said that the novel has exhausted all its possibilities,” Kundera asserted in 1985. “I have the opposite impression: during its 400-year history, the novel has missed many of its possibilities; it has left many great opportunities unexplored, many paths forgotten, calls unheard.”

This is the territory from which The Festival of Insignificance operates, which means the most useful way to read it may be as an epilogue. It is slight, incidental, a book in which little happens: a cocktail party, some unrequited longing, a bit of humor. Still, it is compelling in its small way.

Among the novel’s running motifs is a story Joseph Stalin used to tell about his prowess as a hunter, recast here as (yes) a joke. The joke, however, is on Stalin, since he is now among “the old dead,” a point Kundera makes explicit by imagining him transplanted to contemporary Paris, where he goes unrecognized. Marionettes again, another motif of the novel, a reminder of how little everything counts. Or, as Ramon suggests in the closing pages: “Insignificance, my friend, is the essence of existence.”

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Osama Bin Laden’s Bookshelf Revealed: What You Can Learn From His Reading List

By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

What does Osama bin Laden’s reading list have to tell us? Recently made public by the office of the director of national intelligence, it lists 103 documents, from U.S. government reports to published works of nonfiction, that reveal Bin Laden to be a smart and educated adversary, as we have always understood.

Since the 9/11 attacks, we as a culture have resisted complex readings of bin Laden, choosing to deride him as a fanatic, which, of course, he was. But that assessment also underestimates his considerable talents, operational and otherwise, his understanding not only of how to enact terror, but also what that terror meant. His reading list suggests just how deep that understanding, that sense of inquiry, went.

September 11, after all, was so disturbing, so effective because of its metaphoric value, as much as the death and devastation that it caused. Think about it: two citadels of American political and economic hegemony — the Pentagon and the World Trade Center (with a third, possibly the White House, targeted by the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania) — destroyed by turning our technology and mobility against us. If a jetliner can become a weapon, and an office tower a killing ground, how can anyone be safe?

This is why The 9/11 Commission Report became a national bestseller upon its release in 2004 — because in the wake of the disaster, we needed a sense of context to reassure us that the pillars by which we understand the world were still in place. The product of a bipartisan federal commission, the report began with a minute-by-minute re-creation of the catastrophe, before moving into a series of extended considerations: of the rise of bin Laden, the development of American counterterrorism efforts and the escalation of the conflict between Al Qaeda and the United States.

The 9/11 Commission Report is one of the documents discovered on Bin Laden’s bookshelf — no surprise there. What better way to understand one’s enemy than to understand the narratives we hold dear?

Something similar might be said about the dozens of other federal reports in his possession, which range from the practical (applications for both new and reissued passports, instructions on how to register the birth of a U.S. citizen abroad) to the analytical (a 2009 Senate assessment of “the Evolving Al-Qaeda Threat to the Homeland,” a 2005 National Security Council “Strategy for Victory in Iraq”). It makes sense that bin Laden would find such materials useful, for the insights they offer into our way of thinking, of strategizing, if nothing else.

And yet, I find myself compelled — and in a perverse way, cheered — by another aspect of these holdings, which is what they have to say about American transparency. This has been an essential, and ongoing, source of debate since the Patriot Act first asked us to sacrifice freedom for security, a discussion kicked into overdrive by Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations about the National Security Agency. Still, the fact that bin Laden, of all people, could have such information on his bookshelf suggests the degree of transparency that is still in place.

If you think transparency is a threat to national security, you’ll likely see this as evidence for further restricting public access to the workings of government. For me, though, it represents a kind of victory, over precisely the sort of theocratic autocracy bin Laden and his successors represent.

What is the best way to defeat authoritarians? Make information available. For proof of this, let’s remember that bin Laden did not destroy American culture, although he did reveal some of its fissures — yet even this may work to our benefit if we use it as a lens through which to look at ourselves more closely, in the reflection of our ideals.

As far as the rest of bin Laden’s reading list, it, too, is as we might imagine. We find the work of government critics such as Greg Palast’s The Best Democracy Money Can Buy and Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, as well as popular histories like Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Superpowers and Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars.

Monomania? Yes, and a bit of self-absorption. But what else would we expect from a figure of such single-minded purpose, who in these titles is revealed?

Indeed, looking through the list is a reminder, finally, of his humanity, dangerous and misguided though he was. This is something we don’t like to think about, that we share with our adversaries a common human core. But for me, what resonates about this list is how mundane parts of it are, how recognizable — not specialized but common, titles we might discover on our own shelves.

Photo: Nicolas Loubet via Flickr

Nick Cave Goes The Distance With ‘The Sick Bag Song’

By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The Sick Bag Song by Nick Cave; Canongate (162 pages, boxed, $49.50)
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Nick Cave has long operated in a particular rock ‘n’ roll tradition: that of the poete maudite. Patti Smith, Jim Morrison, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan — these are some of the analogues to Cave’s creative posture. Not surprisingly, like all of them, he has not only made music but also written books.

Cave’s first novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, appeared 25 years ago; his second, The Death of Bunny Munro, came out in 2009. He has also published two collections of lyrics and occasional writings, and now an idiosyncratic diary of sorts, The Sick Bag Song, which traces what let’s call the inner life of the Bad Seeds 2014 North American tour.

The Sick Bag Song draws its title from the method of its composition; Cave wrote it longhand on air sickness bags while flying from city to city, Kansas City to Milwaukee to Minneapolis, and part of what it recounts is an endless sequence of hotel rooms and stages, the distance from home and family.

“I awake hanging from the ceiling in the Westin, Calgary, Southern Alberta,” he writes in one sequence. “I spider down into my clothes and fling wide the window!”

Hyperbole, yes, although that, as it turns out, is not what Cave has in mind here. Rather, he wants to evoke a certain state of statelessness, of rootlessness, of being lost in the middle of his life with nowhere, particularly, to turn.

“I carefully concoct a paste in a bowl and I paint my hair black,” he writes in one of the book’s most revealing passages. ” … In the right eye, / in the blue, is a little brown discoloration and the whites / Are beginning to yellow. There is a lover spot on my right temple / A spider-vein on my right nostril. The bathroom light is brutal. / I reposition my face so that I stop looking / Like Kim Jong-Un and start looking more like Johnny Cash.”

This is no rock star posing — although there is some of that here, names dropped: Cash, Dylan, Bryan Ferry — but a kind of brutally direct explication of aging, in a field where aging still is not part of the discourse in any fundamental sense.

In that regard, The Sick Bag Song has more in common with a certain sort of contemporary memoir, using the mundane, the everyday, as a lens through which to explicate the broader experience of living, with all its degradations and its loss.

Indeed, it’s not hard, reading these pages, to imagine the title in terms of the body itself, body as sick bag, as container of both flesh and its deconstruction, of the sickness, the decay, that awaits. This is a key aspect of Cave’s aesthetic, in both his music and his writing, an almost gleeful willingness to peel back the surfaces and expose the elemental realities underneath.

“The Sick Bag Song is the leavings,” he tells us:

The Sick Bag Song is the scrapings.
The Sick Bag Song is the shavings.
The Sick Bag Song is the last vestiges.
The Sick Bag Song is the bile and the tripe.

In the face of that, what other choice do we have but to embrace the moment-by-moment nature of our existence, even as we know it cannot last?

Cave is strongest on such moments, such perceptions, on the temporary, evanescent satisfactions of this fleeting world.

Or, as he writes from Louisville, after a tour stop:

“Later still, we file onto the bus and our tour manager counts heads and we cling to our paper coffee cups, and as the bus turns into Main Street down comes a sudden summer shower and someone puts on ‘Kentucky Rain’ by Elvis Presley and I see, through the window, for an instant, along one of the adjacent streets that leads to the Ohio River, under the Big Four Pedestrian and Bicycle Bridge, a group of representatives from the emergency services, dressed in black jackets and peaked caps, dragging something from the rain-pocked river.”

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: David Shankbone via Wikicommons

T. Geronimo Johnson Brings Culture Clash To ‘Welcome To Braggsville’

By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Welcome to Braggsville: A Novel by T. Geronimo Johnson; Morrow (354 pages, $25.99)
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When was the last time you were shocked by a turn in a novel? Not merely surprised or astonished but actually stunned? T. Geronimo Johnson makes it happen twice in his second novel, Welcome to Braggsville — first, about a third of the way in and, again, toward the end of the book.

That I can’t be more specific is one challenge of writing about this excellent work of fiction, since I don’t want to give these essential shifts away. Suffice it to say, then, that Welcome to Braggsville is audacious, unpredictable, exuberant, and even tragic, in the most classic meaning of the word.

“Daron cringed when she said tragedy,” Johnson writes of his protagonist, a UC Berkeley sophomore born and raised in Braggsville, Ga. “Everybody knows better. The first fact they learned in his course on Greek theater (or in any introductory lit theory class) was that a tragedy arose when one faced two competing claims of equal magnitude. Hence, when Antigone is faced with either abandoning her brother Polynices’s rotting corpse to cook the air in accordance with Creon’s dictates or burying her sibling in accordance with family duty, she faces tragedy. When a drunken idiot falls asleep at the wheel or knob or whatever it is and the subway crashes, that is not tragedy.”

Berkeley, the Deep South, Greek tragedy: These are just a few of the elements that run through Welcome to Braggsville, which is about the clash of cultures, on both personal and collective terms. Daron is a case in point: white, the product of what seems an enlightened home, an enlightened community, except for the Civil War reenactment the town stages every year.

For Daron, there’s nothing strange about that until he mentions it in his “American History X, Y, and Z: Alternative Perspectives” seminar. “The table was shocked,” Johnson tells us. “The entire class in fact. They’d heard tell of Civil War reenactments, but they were still occurring? The War Between the States was another time and another country. As was the South. Are barbers still surgeons? Is there still sharecropping? What about indoor plumbing? Like an old Looney Tunes skit, Tex Avery tag ensued.”

Such a passage offers a hint of Johnson’s method, a heady mix of satire and hyperbole. At times, Welcome to Braggsville reads like a literary hybrid of David Foster Wallace and Colson Whitehead: word-besotted, incorporating references that are, by turns, high and pop cultural, while piercing the pretensions of academia and the complacencies of small-town life.

Daron’s history class includes his three best friends, Louis (Loose) Chang, a Malaysian stand-up from San Francisco; Charlie, a gay African-American from Chicago and Candice, a blond from Iowa. The quartet calls itself “the 4 Little Indians.” If this sounds like a riff on the melting pot (or, better yet, the glorious mosaic) of post-everything America, that is entirely the point.

Part of what Johnson is after is to skewer political correctness, but his critique is more trenchant than mere parody. Rather, his intent is to highlight the complicity of everyone, from the reenacters, with their historical blindness, to the campus activists with their disconnected culture-speak.

Thus, when Candice suggests protesting the reenactment with “a performative intervention” over spring break, their professor crows, “That’s even better! … You can force States’ Rights to take a look in the mirror and they will not like what they see.” The plan is for the four undergraduates to go to Braggsville and stage a lynching, dressing as slaves and using a hidden harness to hoist one of the Little Indians into the low limbs of a tree.

To call this loaded is to underplay its edge of provocation, which is precisely what makes Welcome to Braggsville work so well. Daron and his friends go back to Georgia armed with little more than theory. “It’s a form of 4-D art,” one of them explains. “It’s activism. It’s the way of the future. … Mass marches are inherently exclusive because access is restricted by geography and mobility, thereby fortifying the enduring social asymmetry they seek to undo. Instead, imagine a thousand performative interventions wherever injustice occurs, whenever it occurs. Social justice meets vaudeville. … It’s the poetry of performance. Me, you, black, white. It’s all an act. … Vershawn Ashanti Young says even race is a performance.”

That this is true, in some sense, is irrelevant; try telling that to Eric Garner or Michael Brown. Although Johnson’s novel does not touch on them, it is impossible to read without imagining them as context, especially after the protest goes terribly, unexpectedly wrong.

On the one hand, this offers an effective plot point, a way to shift from campus satire into something far more nuanced and profound. On the other, it offers a commentary on the uselessness of theory in the real world, where actions speak louder than thought.

Johnson, who was a 2013 PEN/Faulkner finalist for his first novel, “Hold It ‘Til It Hurts,” and has an M.A. from Berkeley in language, literacy and culture, clearly knows the territory — his lampooning is trenchant and to the point. But it is what happens afterward that elevates Welcome to Braggsville to the level of art.

“How did anyone, anyone, any-damn-one, in this country, for Methuselah’s sake, rise above the mire,” he writes late in the novel. “Bootstraps? How did anyone live without salt and pepper, speak plain and easy?”

What he’s talking about is language, the way we hide what we’re saying behind layers of euphemism, uttered in a “tone which was first cousin to that patronizing timbre used to announce the choo-choo train entering the tunnel where babies were fed.” The implication is that we have allowed ourselves to be infantilized by both the traditionalists and the radicals, who use language to manipulate rather than to explain.

“Be a word herder,” Johnson cautions. “The powerful intellect leashed by an impoverished vocabulary is a myth.”

That’s a key point and an important moment in a novel full of language and ideas. Johnson is a terrific storyteller, and he moves fluidly from past to present, place to place. In the end, no one is right and everyone is — or perhaps it’s the other way around.

More to the point is his vision, his ability to shock us, in ways both astonishing and inevitable. The world is too complicated for easy summaries or abstractions, he means to tell us, whether in the classroom or the weirdness of an adult dress-up game.

“No man,” Johnson writes, “can carry another man’s cross. You may think you can but you only delay their journey.” That’s as true of Daron as it is of any character in this novel — and, indeed, of every one of us.

© 2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC