03 August 2011

Tea Party Outsiders

Having let this blog go dormant for the better part of a year, due largely to the fact that I felt like it lacked any sense of purpose, I have to admit to a certain embarrassment to posting now just for the sake of getting something out of my system. (And perhaps insomnia and sleep deprivation play a role in this) But, oh well, the inspiration is there and better to write about it than to leave it turning over in my head.

I was motivated to write by today's Maureen Dowd column in the New York Times, Washington Chainsaw Massacre, in which Dowd draws parallels between our current political situation and the plots of some major horror works in literature and film and references Lovecraft. Now, don't get me wrong, I mostly agree with Dowd. There's certainly plenty of Fear and Loathing to go around in our current political climate, and it's not difficult to imagine the Capitol--currently occupied by one overly sensitive party and one that has fallen into somnambulance--splitting apart like the House of Usher.

And it's kind of cool to see Lovecraft referenced in the New York Times, but as sometimes happens, I can't help feel it's done in a way which reinforces the image of Lovecraft as a writer who mostly just called things "indescribable" and then threw a lot of adjectives around. The passage in particular is:

In the short story “The Outsider,” Lovecraft’s narrator offers a description that matches how some alarmed Democrats view Tea Partiers: “I cannot even hint what it was like, for it was a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal and detestable. It was the ghoulish shade of decay, antiquity and desolation; the putrid, dripping eidolon of unwholesome revelation; the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide. God knows it was not of this world.”

There's something about the choice of this quote that feels, well, like Dowd just skimmed a Lovecraft Best of... until she found the first sentence that seemed purple and horrific enough. Where to start? How about the fact that the narrator in this case is describing his own reflection, which actually seems like an interesting commentary though not one that Dowd seems be to trying to make. Or how about the fact that both the Tea Parties and Lovecraft have a soft spot for the 18th century? Or how the past in Lovecraft's fiction often takes on a dual role of both idyllic refuge and source of menace? Not to mention that some of these descriptors just seem off. (Do Democrats really think of the Tea Party as a "shade of decay" or an "unwholesome revelation"? Isn't it the Republicans who are more likely to think in terms of moral disgust?)

To tell the truth, as a Lovecraft nerd, as someone who has read more than a couple of biographies about him, as someone who thinks it's kind of cool how he went from being a cult writer to having a Library of America printing, I feel a certain degree of affection for Lovecraft and an almost protective reaction when I see him portrayed in a reductive way, especially by people who perhaps should know better (*cough*StephenKing*cough*). And I don't really feel like the Lovecraft quote Dowd chose adds a whole lot to her argument. It's just a series of pejoratives, taken out of context in a way that deprives them of much of their meaning. It seems like, had she read a little more deeply into Lovecraft, she might have turned up something more appropriate or interesting. And I guess that's what I find most disappointing.

23 September 2010

Behind the Green (Room) Door

After a couple of stories that arguably fit with the horror theme, Palahniuk shifts gears. There's nothing vaguely terrifying, eerie or mysterious going on in this story. In it, Miss America and a "slick guy" sit in the green room of a television studio where some mid-sized town's local version of "Good Morning, America" is produced. They are there to sell products, she an exercise wheel, he a set of investment tapes.

The SG is the more experienced of the two, so a large part of the narrative is taken up with his advice/commentary on these TV shows and what it takes to succeed on them. We learn a little about Miss America's back story. She was once fat, but through diet and exercise thinned down to the point where she looked much better. She is also given to wearing pink. There's not really much else to her. As she herself says, "Losing all that blubber is the only really heroic thing I've ever done... If I gain it back, than it'll be like I never lived." I wonder if it's intentional for this character, so objectified and labeled by society that she has become shallow, to be portrayed in such a superficial way. Is it just poor writing, or does Palahniuk want us to know that he, too, is part of the problem?

As for Mr. SG, he's one of those typical Palahniuk creations who can rattle off facts about some chosen field. Here his obsession is broadcast media, especially television. One of the facts he sites is how cameras collapse three dimensions into two, rendering everything flatter. Because of this, faces with many angles look more interesting than those with less. Advances in image technology, however, tend to relatively bring out the details of faces, so those sharp angles might seem less attractive on current broadcasts than they used to. You could argue that Palahniuk's general point about the way the medium distorts reality is still true, but I wonder if his topicality means that some of his fiction will date rather quickly.

We learn that Mr. SG's parents were both product spokesmen who traveled from town to town to appear on morning shows. His mom is dead, but his dad, who didn't stick around for very long, is the old guy who is currently in the studio of the same station, his presentation delayed by some national catastrophe.

Overall, it's a pretty dull story. If Miss America weren't such a one-note character, seeing her back story might be interesting. Definitely no horror elements, save perhaps the horror of being around people lacking in personalities. There's some potentially interesting commentary about how mass media ends up altering what it portrays, though this hardly provides any deep insights.

16 September 2010

Foot Work

This story is told by Mother Nature, who is something of a hippie New Age type, with her long skirts, henna-painted skin and patchouli smell. She used to be a reflexologist, trained in treating medical conditions by massaging people's feet. It's not a lucrative career, but one day she meets a former classmate who now appears to be living an upper-class lifestyle. The classmate introduces MN to the world of "foot jobs," in which reflexologists use foot manipulation to give clients orgasms that leave them "to weak to walk for the next couple of days." In order to improve her financial situation, MN also gets into the business of foot jobs. At first, she earns a good amount of money, but she soon finds herself competing with too many other former idealists now turned high-priced call girls/guys and being in hock to the mafioso who acts as her pimp. Her friend introduces her to the next "dark side" application of reflexology, as an assassination technique. It is already too late for MN, who now has to go into hiding.

When Palahniuk is on his game, as he is here, he has a talent for coming up with amusingly twisted concepts that seem not entirely implausible. While not as horrific, claustrophobic or suspenseful as "Guts" the story still manages to create something of a paranoid vibe. It's world of reflexologist hit men, Reiki assassins, Feng Shui murder techniques, etc. suggests a darker, quasi-supernatural truth behind placid everyday reality. This story also continues the theme of people willing to employ rather odd means in order to better "get their rocks off."

One quick note: I'm leaving Post-Production, The Nightmare Box, Poster Child and Cassandra until the end. These four stories constitute their own, separate narrative, which can be thought of as the Cassandra Sequence.

15 September 2010

A Change of Direction/The Poetry of Chuck Palahniuk

I've been neglecting to continue with my review of Haunted for a variety of reasons. In part, because as I thought of the project, it became somewhat daunted. However, I've found inspiration to pick up the project again from two rather distinct sources. The first is Julio Cortázar's seminal novel, Hopscotch, written in 155 chapters which can be read in standard order or in a more convoluted "skipping around" manner. (Explained more fully in this Wikipedia entry.) A couple of days ago, while reading it, I found myself pondering whether the two different strategies represented two different ways of reading the novel or in fact represented two distinct novels. Is there an alternate order that would make the novel more powerful, more entertaining, more insightful than either of the two approaches offered by Cortázar?

The second is from Mr. Palahniuk himself in this interview where he describes his goal as the following:
In Haunted, I wanted to mimic the appearance of “Best of” collections. For example, The Collected Works of Poe. Those books alternate stories with novellas and poems.
When I first read that, I thought mainly of how it backed up my feeling that Haunted suffered from a certain lack of focus, that it was a fix-up novel in search of an identity. But in light of Hopscotch, I though I might follow Palahniuk's logic to its inevitable conclusion and treat it as a Collected Works of...

I've decided to reconstruct this "novel" along somewhat different lines, treating as some might treat an anthology. I've already read all of the poetry. Next, I plan to read and review the short stories (save "Guts," about which I've already written) as individual stories) and will finish off with a review of the novella/framing story.

I've already discussed the poetry a little in a previous entry, and reading all of it in a couple of sittings only serves to confirm that there isn't much here in traditional poetic terms of rhyme, meter, flow. There's a common visual element of the subject of the poem standing on a stage, while a thematically appropriate series of images is projected onto them. This element serves to express the way these characters are obscured by their own stories, a visual analogue of the way the character names, based on their backgrounds, crimes, etc., take the place of any sort of personal or family name. (The relationship between the story and the teller being one of the central themes of Haunted.)

One question I had hoped to resolve in rereading Haunted was, "Is this a horror novel?" On the one hand, there's the name, the cover, the fact that it would seem to be the third novel Palahniuk wrote after announcing he would write three novels "reinventing horror," and the Bram Stoker nomination it received. But there's still the question of the content of the book and to what degree it either uses horror elements and/or manages to be scary.

I'd have to say that the poetry falls by and large into the not horror. There's nothing particularly scary, atmospheric, moody. Some of them are amusing and/or transgressive, such as Mother Nature's tale of trying to enter a convent or The Matchmaker's account of his twisted, uh, matchmaking. Some, as with the matchmaker, try to fill in some of the details on these characters. Often, Palahniuk uses them to hit the themes and concepts that the novel also touches on elsewhere.

There's a degree of earnestness to some of these, such as "Evolution," which argues for life as a gift earned by other's sacrifice, and ends asking, "How will you show their birth and work and death were worthwhile?" Or, "Looking Back," in which a woman wistfully talks about raising a child. Sometimes this degree of earnestness can feel a bit heavy-handed as with the Earl of Slander's "Trade Secrets," which ends:
A journalist has a right...
...and a duty to destroy
those golden calves he helps create.
It might be an interesting thought if it were somewhat original.

Overall, the "poems" are a bit of a dud. They don't really hold up on their own, they don't contribute anything in terms of atmosphere, and they often touch on themes that are developed more in depth elsewhere. The poems mostly serve as something of a sideshow or distraction, helping to give the book the appearance of being more complex than it really is.

Next up, I'm going to pick up on the short stories. Since I've already covered "Guts," the next story will be "Foot Work."

28 July 2010

The Fall of the House of Wanker (Guts)

“Guts” is sort of (in)famous for being the story that caused people to faint at book signings. While it’s a dubious distinction for a story, it does capture a good sense of how potent the story is. Whatever problems I may have with the rest of the book, “Guts” is still a brilliant, if brutal, (or brilliantly brutal) tale, worthy of a modern day Poe, albeit one more interested in premature ejaculation than premature burial or in getting off than getting even. It’s a nearly perfect story, with the exception of a couple of moments when Palahniuk seems to overreach.

The story, of course, begins with a falsehood.
Take in as much air as you can.
This story should last about as long as you can hold your breath, and then just a little bit longer.

This story clocks in at somewhere in the 3000 word range, meaning that even at 2500 words, and read at the cheetah-like 600 words per minute, it would still take five minutes to get through the story. I'm not sure what the lung capacity for the average person is, but I imagine five minutes is pushing it. It's even worse if the story is out loud. Even John Moschitta, Jr. (who most in my generation will recognize as The Micro Machine Man) only clocks in at 586 words per minute, or slightly over five minutes. It's arguable that the narrator himself, who describes his lung capacity as "huge," may manage to hold his breath for that long, but it's not advisable for the rest of us.

"Guts" is essentially three stories about masturbation, each more gruesome and twisted than the one before it. The first is a kid of thirteen years old who was always "jonesing for a better way to get his rocks off." The kid hears about stimulating the prostate gland to induce orgasm and attempts it using a carrot and some Vaseline. When he gets called to dinner, he hides the carrot but comes back to see that it has disappeared along with is dirty laundry. From that day onward, a sense of shame and foreboding hangs over his relationship with is parents.

The second kid hears from his older brother that orgasm can be intesified through the insertion of a thin smooth tube into the urethra. One evening, while high he uses a thin tube of wax, which he's taken from a candle dripping, in order to try out this theory. Just as he's about to climax, he realizes that the tube has disappeared. A few hours later, his abdomen begins to hurt. After being taken to the hospital, an X-ray reveals that the tube has fallen into his bladder and is absorbing minerals, growing rough and damaging the inside of his bladder. His parents have to dip into his college fund to pay for the operation. "One stupid mistake, and how he'll never be a lawyer," the narrator tells us.

The last story is the narrator's own. He used to masturbate in the pool while sitting naked on the drain at the very bottom, which he called Pearl Diving due to his practice of snatching all the floating ejaculate from the water afterwards. As he finished one day and goes to kick off for air, he finds that he's stuck. Looking back, he sees "some kind of snake, blue-white and braided with veins" has come up from the pool drain and is latched on to his butt.

This is where the novel achieves something almost Poe-like. As the narrator realizes that the snake is actually his small intestine--pulled out by the suction of the drain--and begins to consider his actions and the consequences, the story achieves a degree of claustrophobia, compounded by the gruesome body horror, that makes it difficult to forget or dismiss. The kid eventually does what he has to in order to survive, telling us in a line that is perhaps a little too clever: "If I told you what it tasted like, you would never, ever again eat calamari." (Of course, "If I told you what it tasted like, you would never, ever again eat chitterlings" would be more accurate, but probably leave many confused.)

Afterwards, his family lives in denial, his dad attributing the mess to a dog that fell into the pool. It is just at the end that Palahniuk/the narrator seems to overreach, laying out the final horror wherein his sister misses her period, implying that she has become pregnant from the ejaculate in the pool. It is at this point that the story crosses over from extreme but plausible to simply ridiculous, for reasons I won't get into at this point. However, overall it's a brilliantly gruesome story, that manages to inject dark humor and a certain melancholy into its shocking proceedings.

26 July 2010

The First Second Poem (Landmarks)

Because my previous experience with Haunted was with the audiobook version, I had always assumed that "Landmarks," a poem about St. Gut-Free, was the first poem in the book. However, the index in the back indicates that "Landmarks" is the second poem. "Guinea Pigs," which I had previously identified as the cold open turns out to be the first poem, or perhaps I should say "poem." Due to the structure of the book, I had come to the conclusion that all off the poems are told from the point of view of a single character, who in the visual scheme of these poems stands on a stage, as if presenting at some odd open mic night. "Guinea Pigs" is from the collective perspective of the rest of the framing story, with no visual sense of being "spoken" by any particular character, so I'd always assumed it was just another section of the framing narrative.

The poems are sort of an interesting feature, though not so much for the poetry themselves. Even calling them poems is a bit of a stretch. Now, I confess I consider myself a pretty unsophisticated reader of poetry. My general approach is to read a poem out loud and judge it by how it feels being spoken. This doesn't give me much more than a general impression of whether I like a poem, but it beats poetry read silently, which usually feels a little flat to me. By that standard, these poems don't quite work. The language doesn't vary much from the style Palahniuk uses in the rest of the book.

What sets the poems apart is more their visual and structural elements. As I mentioned above, the poems all feature the visual of a character standing on a stage speaking. There's a short physical description of the character as well as a short introduction. Some of these are proper stories, others are more of a general rambling either about themselves or something of interest to them. The other common feature is of a movie playing over the characters, as a form of spotlight, which tends to echo whatever the character's theme is. This heightens the sense that these are archetypes of a sort.

In terms of the narrative structure, the poems are each told by the character whose story immediately follows. There are a couple of stories that are not preceded by poems, but I'll get into that later.

"Landmarks" brings St. Gut-Free who is so skinny that "his hands touch in the middle of his back." He tells a story of the job he used to have, where he drove a bus for tourists. One day, he takes the bus by his parents' house, and on spotting his father out front, dubs him "Saint Mel, the Patron Saint of Shame and Rage." He comes back the next days and adds, Saint Betty, "The Patron Saint of Public Humiliation." He later drives by his sister's condo and adds Saint Wendy, "The Patron Saint of Therapeutic Abortion." When he drives by his own apartment, he christens it the shrine of "The Patron Saint of Masturbation."

Overall, the poem is fairly amusing and interesting. If I praise it slightly at this point, it is because some of the impact should come from the discomfort of the combination of sainthood with these rather terrible things. This is pretty standard for Palahniuk, so seems a little less innovative now that I'm more accustomed to his shtick.

20 July 2010

The Wheels on the Bus (Chapter 1)

Chapter 1 begins with a bus picking up Comrade Snarky who is wearing "an army-surplus flak jacket--dark olive-green--and baggy camouflage pants, the cuffs rolled up to show infantry boots...a black beret pulled tight on her head, she could be anyone." I think those last four words are worth paying note to, since this is not that last time we'll see a character disappear behind a costume. I think it's fairly ambiguous whether this qualifies them as 2-D slasher flick victims or something more complicated, such as the archetypal lost souls I suggested previously.

The Matchmaker, introduced a little later in the chapter, not only comes in with cowboy boots and a straw cowboy hat, spitting brown tobacco juice out the window, but even (just in case you didn't get he's a hayseed) trailing horse shit. Before we move on with the characters, who we'll learn more about (or not) in future chapters, it's worth noting one last detail. Director Denial arrives with her cat, Cora Reynolds, and a tweed blazer, one of the lapels of which is swollen out from her chest. "A shoulder holster," says Comrade Snarky on seeing that.

These people are all being picked up in the dark hours of the morning, before the sun hasn't even come up. After this, they know they will be in their isolated writer's retreat, an experience likened to being on a desert island. They are each allowed one suitcase because "there will be a lot of [them], and the bus taking them to the desert island is only so big." (Here's hoping Palahniuk is aiming to mix up his metaphors, and just for the record, were I taking a bus to a desert island, my suitcase would contain scuba gear.)

As they get on the bus, they think about the people they are leaving behind.
Those people still in bed, they'd be asleep another hour, then washing their faces, under their arms, and between their legs, before going to the same work every day. Living the same life, every day.

These people would cry, but then they would go back to waiting tables, painting houses, programming computers.

It's a sentiment echoed by the organizer of the writer's retreat, Mr. Whittier, an old man with a "spotted shiny dome" of a scalp across which a few gray hairs have been combed. He tells them: "The people you're sneaking away from, they don't want you enlightened. They want to know what to expect."

I wonder if Palahniuk is still read in fifty years, whether he'll be considered largely an author you read when you're still young, preferably in high school or beginning college, like Jack Kerouac. It's possible that Mr. Whittier is not meant to be a mouthpiece for the author, but I doubt that since some variation on that sort of thinking seems to crop up often in the author's novels.

I confess it's a point of view I find myself having less patience with as I grow older. Yes, those people who have been left behind by their loved ones probably would get one with their lives, but I can't say I blame them, since the alternative would be to go chasing after those selfish pricks who abandoned them. Additionally, I wonder how Palahniuk's criticism fits in changing times.

In a time of increasing personal bankruptcies, of great economic risk being transferred from governments and business to families, is the desire for some sense of security--knowing you won't be homeless in retirement or that you'll be able to put your kids through college all that unreasonable--all that unreasonable? Or is Palahniuk prescient about how even the little security people had in 2006 would soon be destroyed by uncontrolled avarice?

Nonetheless, these would-be writers are not without their own economic dreams. They hope to write
...some maserpiece. A short story or poem or screenplay to make sense of [their lives]. A masterpiece that would buy [their] way out of slavery to a husband or parent or corporation. That would earn [their] freedom.

There's an interesting conflation of literary (masterpiece) and monetary (buy, earn) goals in that paragraph. Since this story of would-be writers began as a story of critics, I feel I must turn to Ricardo Piglia's commentary on the intersection of those realms (from his brilliant "Assumed Name"):
...as in every good detective story, what is at play is not the law, but money (or, more appropriately: the law of money). ...critics act like administrators of art and their function is to regulate the circulation and sale of books in the market: to be "criticized" (discovered) is to lose readers, that is, to be unable to earn money through literature. Once more, as with the counterfeiter who prints forged bills, to be discovered is not a moral (in this case: literary) problem but an economic one.

A couple of posts back, I mentioned how (like The Castle of Otranto) Haunted traffics in a little bit of misrepresentation. Haunted began life as a collection of short stories but was reworked into a novel because short story collections don't sell well. Haunted as a novel is a work of forgery motivated not by literary (moral) concerns but by monetary ones, interestingly paralleling the motives of his would-be writers. Interestingly, the would-be writers see money as necessary to buy their way "out of slavery." One wonders if the parallel between author and subject extends so far.

I want to move on from the novel's various crimes and ghosts for now, and let's get to the end of the chapter. Here, after an off-hand comment from Miss Sneezy, we learn that Comrade Snarky feels that Anne Frank had "life pretty good." As she explaines "Anne Frank ... never had to tour with her book..." Yes, this is offensive, but for Palahniuk pushing those kinds of buttons is sort of de rigueur, especially for Haunted. (I warn you now, if that seems bad, you may not want to go on.)

For now, let's look at the strange juxtaposition of Anne Frank's life with that of an author who "has to" tour with his or her book. Snarky seems to suggest that behind forced into hiding is preferable to being forced (or at least contractually obligated) to reveal oneself. As a would-be author, Snarky would appear to believe that she can create a masterpiece to earn her freedom, but she would prefer to remain in hiding than to be seen with her work. There's a suggestion here, perhaps one not unfamiliar to writers, of wanting the work to stand for the person. Instead of going out into the world him or herself, the writer would rather the work could function as their representative.

Ghosts, false identities, entrapment, hiding, the human replaced by its simulacrum--some themes already beginning to crop up--sign posts that we may be entering Gothic territory.