Late-Summer Recommendations: Feel “The Chill”

When it comes to genre conventions, detective fiction has quite recognizable and consistent ones, the experiments of some authors notwithstanding. Since Edgar Allan Poe invented the species in the mid-1800s, a reader has generally known what she is going to get from most detective noir. These expectations cohere in the figure of the narrator, the private eye, who is usually male [1], usually a bachelor (albeit one intriguing to oft-untrustworthy dames), usually a cynic (perhaps even a melancholy one), usually based in a city, usually on ambivalent terms with the police (of whom he was perhaps once an officer), and usually more interested in solving particular crimes than in generalizing about What It All Means in some grand existential sense, or serving a general narrative that does that.

The detective’s universe is amoral yet explicable, provided one is reasonably unsentimental—provided one is ready to be disappointed by the weird, selfish motives, rationalizations, and acts of human beings. (In many ways the genre is an ongoing response to capitalism, Darwin, and Freud. Then again, so is everything.) For the most memorable private eyes, in fact, disappointment is a flavor from the past: they have already seen too much to be let down by anything people do with or to one another. The detective’s unstated moral task is to not become like other people even while watching them closely.

The unfortunate side result of this conventionality is that there’s a lot of crappy, formulaic detective fiction out there. Hacks can churn the stuff out quite easily, like pornography or L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry. Genuinely good writers are those who play with and re-imagine the genre’s strictures while keeping things entertaining, which is another central demand of the form.

If I had to pick a G.O.A.T. detective writer, I would bet the house on Ross Macdonald. Born Kenneth Millar in 1917, “Macdonald” reached literary maturity in the 1950s, when he started publishing books centered on the detective Lew Archer. (OK, the first Archer novel is technically from 1949, but Macdonald’s first great book, The Drowning Pool, dropped in 1950.) These sold well and received some praise from thoughtful critics, especially Eudora Welty, but his rep as a master primarily developed after his death in 1983. Man got laurels in the grave.

Lew Archer is certainly tough-minded and pessimistic, and ready to put his body into defensive action, but he isn’t hard in the idiomatic sense. He isn’t violent or foul-mouthed; he doesn’t have much of a temper, doesn’t appear to dislike women, and doesn’t have any deep sins in his past.

Instead, Macdonald makes him something of a wandering, reluctant poet. Or, like, if Montaigne were a private dick. The narratives that enmesh Archer are driven largely by his sensitivity to the world and his ability to off-handedly describe it in striking terms. Often he thinks and talks (to himself) like a sad aesthete; Archer is a writer who doesn’t write. The moral superstructure of Macdonald’s novels consists not in appeals to higher ethical, political, or social powers, to some crux of Good and Evil, but in the humanist clarity and tonal beauty of Archer’s responses to a world after God.

Ross MacDonald - The Chill

We can see this by looking at 1963’s The Chill, one of the best mid-century examples of the detective form. A handful of Archer’s remarks provides a sense of the book’s prose quality and the vigor of its characterizations and settings, which in turn lend it legitimate ethical weight. Enjoy some lapidary fragments.

Still her black eyes were alert, like unexpected animal or bird life in the ruins of a building.

Some men spend their lives looking for ways to punish themselves for having been born, and Begley had some of the stigmata of the trouble-prone.

Spiders had been busy in the angles of the rafters, which were webbed and blurred as if fog had seeped in at the corners.

Black grief kept flooding up in him, changing to anger when it reached the air.

He wore a plaid waistcoat, and he had the slightly muzzy voice and liquid eyes and dense complexion of a man who drank all day and into the night.

It became drab and impersonal like any room anywhere in which murder had been committed. In a curious way the men in uniform seemed to be doing the murder a second and final time, annulling Helen’s rather garish aura, converting her into laboratory meat and courtroom exhibits.

Time seemed to have slowed down, dividing itself into innumerable fractions, like Zeno’s space or marijuana hours.

I could hear her breathing as if she was struggling up to the rim of the present.

In wine was truth, perhaps, but in whisky, the way Hoffman sluiced it down, was an army of imaginary rats climbing your legs.

The light that filtered through their turning leaves onto the great lawns was the color of sublimated money.

The receiver crashed down, but he went on talking. His voice rose and fell like a wind, taking up scattered fragments of the past and blowing them together in a whirl.

I got a quick impression of him: a man of half-qualities who lived in a half-world:he was half-handsome, half-lost, half-spoiled, half-smart, half-dangerous. His pointed Italian shoes were scuffed at the toes.

Her broad sexless body made her resemble a dilapidated Buddha.

The road left the shore and tunneled among trees which enclosed it like sweet green coagulated night.

His eyes came up to mine, candid and earnest as only an actor’s can be.

The long slow weight of prison forces men into unusual shapes. McGee had become a sort of twisted saint.

The kind of fiction we call “literary” has two distinguishing features. First, its language strives to challenge but delight: to be beautiful. Second—without which the first feature is nearly pointless—such fiction consistently explores what a meaningful human existence might look like, whether or not some deity or judge is watching, whether or not meaning can actually be achieved and not just struggled toward. For Archer, for Macdonald, for many serious modern novelists, God’s house is empty; it probably always was. There is only the consolation of truthful language and scrupulous work. Archer uses one to frame the other. That labor is done in the face of much “fear and loathing,” a phrase (echoing Kierkegaard) that appears in this book years before Hunter S. Thompson popularized it.

Dig Macdonald. And look at that paperback cover!

Notes
1. Though not always male. Martin Amis’s Night Train (1997) is a good example of a noir novel with a female lead.

“I had to inhale all the books”: Coates the Canonist

Since Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me dropped a couple of weeks ago, the book has been reviewed by a brigade of critics, including the tidal choruses of Twitter. Most of the serious evaluations have been positive; some are even euphoric. They’re still pouring in, and I’m down with consensus: the man’s prose is exhilarating, his ethical intelligence acute, his historical knowledge vast. The book’s meditation on American racism has immediately become required reading, and I needn’t add to what many other critics have said about that general line of his critique. Here I’d like to focus on a smaller but nevertheless significant aspect of the work: I want to examine the bookworm’s Between the World and Me and speculate briefly on what that says about Coates’s writing mind.

In a recent series of tweets, John Warner (@biblioracle) remarked that in contrast to James Baldwin, to whom he is often compared, Coates has a voice more reminiscent of the classroom than the pulpit. I agree. Granted, Baldwin was just as much of an intellectual, and there is a sermonic element in Coates’s address to his son, but Coates sounds more like Toni Morrison when she’s in critic mode. (A mode where, ironically, she wrote BTWM’s only cover blurb, which names Coates Baldwin’s heir.) He explicitly, repeatedly identifies himself as a reader with catholic tastes, as a self inseparable from an education in books (among other things, of course). BTWM inhabits a corpus of critical theory, much of it “Western,” even though its author, like Malcolm X, the bibliophilic hero of his youth, rejects Eurocentric models of cultural capital that laid claim to this tradition of thought. Plato and Said and Nietzsche and Henry Louis Gates and dozens of other writers inform the book without being openly referenced; others who actually are named, like DuBois and Hurston and Baraka, mark Coates’s entrance into intellectual adulthood. His work underscores the centrality of writing and reading—the centrality of printed texts—to the intellectual equipment of any serious person.

Since childhood, when his mother challenged him to write in response to frustrations, Coates had what he calls “the gift of study” (a gift suppressed in most people.) This readerly gift is the twin of his need to write; and these acts form a critical humanist consciousness. He sees “the craft of writing as the art of thinking.” Writing well requires “a confrontation with my own innocence, my own rationalizations,” for “loose and useless words [a]re not separate from loose and useless thoughts.” Speaking of “the art of journalism,” he deems it “a powerful technology for seekers,” a claim that can be generalized to all ambitious writing. His version of the Socratic examined life is fundamentally textual.

Further, Coates is a canonist. Not in the normative way that, say, Harold Bloom or Matthew Arnold are, because they see canon-formation and maintenance as primarily an Anglo project; but rather in terms of a basic belief that some texts really are better than almost all others and thus worth passing along to younger generations first. To be sure, he envisions a democratic canon which is constantly interrogated and supplemented, but he’s still a Great Books man. Canonicity is a principle, not a specific roster of content.

The canon isn’t the possession of any particular institution, not even Coates’s beloved Howard. When he began working out his canon, he drew upon the frameworks and resources of the university but remained a free agent “made for the library, not the classroom.” His emerging archive of Great Books flowed into what he calls Mecca, the embodied network of black knowledge, imagination, and experience that encompasses and exceeds the school. Mecca is a lifeworld, is all the breathing human treasure of the African diaspora, a diaspora that called him to read everything he could and cull meaning from the pile. At Howard’s Moorland library, he began to understand that “My reclamation would be accomplished, like Malcolm’s, through books, through my own study and exploration.”

His theory and practice of the library rest on the idea of an ecumenical canon where “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus,” a quip he borrows from the journalist Ralph Wiley (who was responding to Saul Bellow’s dickhead quip that Zulu culture produced no literary consciousness). The canon is fluid and sometimes internally contradictory—he calls it “the discordant tradition”—because the examined life is like that, too. Being “politically conscious” entails “a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.” Shades of Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination here. Indeed, canonicity enables inquiry in the first place, inquiry which in turn permits modifications of the canon. I suspect Coates and T.S. Eliot would disagree about a lot of things, but here they are brothers. Between the World and Me embeds historical and political critique in a continuum of reading just as Eliot’s essay “Tradition and Individual Talent” conceptualizes literature as a dialectic between a textual canon and the authorial self.

Coates is also a materialist. Our physical bodies do not merely house preexisting souls, they somehow engender these souls. Mind is brain, brain is mind. There is no God nor any consolatory, absolute form of meaning. History has no telos–“the god of history is an atheist,” Coates assures his son. We, and in particular people who live under assault, as African Americans do, have only an endless struggle to be honest about the past, live with dignity in the present, and perhaps imagine the slow possibility of better futures.

“I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream,” he writes, “is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.” We have “constant interrogation” of and “confrontation with the brutality” that constitutes American history. His fundamental aim, then, is embodied critique: a representation of what it is like to be an American reader and writer with black skin.

Reading, writing, and thinking: these are physical acts for Coates, and in their concreteness they oppose what he calls the Dream, the normative national story in which America is an innocent, uniquely beneficent place predicated on a healthy bank balance of whiteness, which is less a skin tone than an existential ideal. “The Dream thrives on generalizations,” he warns, “on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing.” One of the most trenchant aspects of Between the World and Me is how it enlists the idea of Great Books in a counterattack on the very white-dominant narrative that has long claimed canonicity for itself–that, in fact, has treated print culture in general as an Anglo-European property. This countering move continues a campaign begun by earlier black intellectuals like Henry Louis Gates and Stanley Crouch.

You should buy a copy of BTWM, because it’s a rare honor when you can help a legit thinker get paid. Dude deserves millions. But I hope to look back in fifty years and find the text to be just one part of the Coates wing of the great unfolding American library. Poetry, claims Wallace Stevens, is the scholar’s art. So is the kind of fire Coates has been writing for a half-decade now. The man stores his gunpowder on the bookshelf.

Without “The Corner” There is No “The Wire”: A Textual Suggestion

Nothing ever shown on television anywhere ever is as brilliant as The Wire, so it’s not like David Simon and Edward Burns, the show’s creators, need props from some random writer. But before The Wire took off, the pair wrote a fantastic sprawl of a book called The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (1997), which has largely dropped from popular memory despite being the basis for a celebrated HBO miniseries. I read it over the holidays, was struck by it, and wanted to write something about why I was so impressed.

The gist: buy the book. Help writers survive. Books are cheap like Coors Light, but unlike a macrobrew twelver they actually make life better.

The Corner does not purport to have the same scope in terms of themes or characters as The Wire. The reader doesn’t spend much time with cops (though some pages are reserved for isolated wrecks like Bob Brown, a Baltimore PD Ahab still walking the long tail of a pointless war); or with highly organized drug crews like Stringer and Avon Bell’s (we only meet part-time teenagers gunning for blunt and Jordans money); or with city politicians, union bosses, stick-up boys, or itinerant European gangsters.

What it does have, instead, is incredible depth and patience with a smaller set of black Americans from Baltimore’s failed-state western neighborhoods. This is a “sad and extraordinary place,” as Simon and Burns put it, and you might call their approach Season 4 coverage, after The Wire‘s crushing foray into the lives of teenagers in city public schools. But the focus is even tighter here, because there are no Major Colvins or Marlo Stanfields, there is no Keema, nor an Omar.

The narrative follows a mostly civilian, localized orbit, although most of the teenage boys are training to be soldiers and slingers. There’s the community center, run by Ella Thompson, who is still fighting against a social collapse that was assured years ago, her center hanging on with almost no money in a flaming neighborhood; there is “the lost platoon” of junkies in shooting galleries in wrecked rowhouses; there are the schools, unable to change what is happening outside their gates but blamed for it anyway; there are the dope crews and young moms and thirtysomethings dying of AIDS; there are, at the center of the ethnography, ordinary poor Americans undone by drugs as much as by the depraved “jail ’em all” stupidity of the drug war that began with Nixon and has continued through Obama. The core of this narrative core comprises Gary McCullough, Fran Boyd, and DeAndre, the first two coke and heroin addicts who used to be married, the latter their complicated, tall, witty teenage son, a kid on his way to fleeting second-lieutenant drug-market success and a city grave by twenty.

The book’s prose lyricism is often staggering. A blend of subjects’ voices and authorial narration, it gets to some heights journalism usually doesn’t. There are about a thousand lines that will have you asterisking and highlighting. I’ll lay out a handful. *hums and digs around in cardboard box*

Two heroin shooters “simply sit, letting the chemistry happen.” A cocaine addict is described as “a charged particle loosed beyond the human condition, frenzied, spinning through the streets from one vial to the next.” A mother waves “frantically” to her son on a winter day, “but the cold wind is coming down the hill, pushing the words back into her mouth.” The same woman’s rented room is “a haunted box.” “Moment by moment, the city is becoming a machine of small insults and petty failures that can wear down even the strongest soul,” a soul like Miss Ella, who runs the tattered community center. Children in West B-more are “suckled on the nihilism of the corner[.]” DeAndre McCullough spends a night “smoking Phillie blunts until his eyeballs look like cherries in buttermilk,” while his father Gary’s running buddy overdoses in front of Gary’s mother, treating her “to a vile and frantic performance.” A thirteen-year-old mother lies in her hospital bed, “in absolute fear of what her body was doing to her.” Miss Ella could be a despondent Studs Terkel of the neighborhood, “shaking her head in dismay, as if truly astonished that the intimate knowledge of so many nightmares could count for so little.”

As Simon and Burns (correctly) see it, late capitalism has rendered socioeconomic groups that were already brutalized and marooned even more economically useless, save as bodies for the “ruthless economic engine” of drug markets and the counterinsurgent drug war. Their historical editorializing is a little repetitive, as is the case even with The Wire, to be honest, but it is rarely extrusive or annoying, because its moral anger is so compelling. From one passage:

Get it straight: they’re not just out here to sling and shoot drugs. That’s where it all began, to be sure, but thirty years has transformed the corner into something far more lethal and lasting than a simple marketplace. The men and women who live the corner life are redefining themselves at incredible cost, cultivating meaning in a world that has declared them irrelevant. […]

On Fayette Street today, the corner world is what’s left to serve up truth and power, money and meaning. It gives life and takes life. It measures all men as it mocks them. It feeds and devours multitudes in the same instant. Amid nothing, the corner is everything. […]

This is an existential crisis rooted not only in race–which the corner has slowly transcended–but in the unresolved disaster of the American rust-belt, in the slow, seismic shift that is shutting down the assembly lines, devaluing physical labor, and undercutting the union pay scale. Down on the corner, some of the walking wounded used to make steel, but Sparrow Point isn’t hiring the way it once did.

By the time Simon and Burns get around to likening the drug war to Vietnam, even an attentive reader might be tempted to skip ahead, only to be yoked again by the prose: “Listen to a big-city narcotics detective boasting about his arrest statistics, savoring them as tangible evidence of progress, and you might think of some starched Saigon briefing officer in an air-conditioned Quonset hut tallying up the daily body count.”

At these moments we sometimes get gold that was refashioned for The Wire, but hey, some great artists know how to self-plagiarize. For example, Bunny Colvin’s deservedly famous paper-bag address shows up as a pointed interjection from the authors, as does his piece about the irrelevance of high school to kids from this part of the world (1). Ditto for DeAngelo Barksdale’s extemporaneous lecture on how, in a rational world, narcotics could be sold peacefully as burgers.

The authors call their approach “stand-around-and-watch journalism.” It is structurally granular and recursive, rather than linear or vertical, using the four seasons to provide a basic shape and chapter names: the subjects’ lives don’t admit of much development or progress in any way that would be familiar to the majority of American readers, who (admit it) still love the Whig myth about historical Progress toward the best of all possible worlds. The corner is iteration upon iteration. A season passes, but the next looks much the same, and anyway the previous will be back.

Considering that two middle-class, middle-aged white guys wrote it, The Corner is a remarkably nuanced, intimate, humane piece of ethnography, one that should have sold a billion copies. Most definitely not a stooping Victorian treatise on The Poor, it is genuinely tender without condescension or sentiment. Simon and Burns aren’t wearing pith helmets, they are writing about men and women they got to know quite well, complex people in a terrible corner of the world.

The text’s epigraph is from Kafka: “You can hold back from the suffering of the world. You have free permission to do so and it is in accordance with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.” [italics added]

Bummer alert: the book is sad. It begins and ends in misery, loss, existential strangulation, pointless brutality. You will also probably be angry upon finishing all 543 pages. You should be. The Corner was researched in 1992-93 and published in 1997. The Wire‘s final season concluded seven years ago, and in that same year the United States would congratulate itself on electing a black President. But, poorer than ever, in 2015 we are still going hard at the drug war. While you read this, someone got locked up after getting caught with a little heroin in a neighborhood where decent jobs vanished four decades ago. That happened. It is happening. We all live here.

NOTES
1. Major Colvin is the fuckin’ best. He’s the character whose voice is closest to that of Simon and Burns.

General Ephemera: Post-Christmas Scraps, Tidbits, Recos, Trinkets, Footnotes, Scattershots, and Noble Rags

Somewhere deep in his Letters, Wallace Stevens admits that he never liked Christmas much because the holiday never lives up to advance billing. Being of a similar mind, I’m glad the man is not alive to see that Samsung commercial where this minor actor named Dax Shepard (yes, sentient human parents named him Dax) and his pregnant wife decorate their awful Silver Lake hill cube. (Google it if you want to rot inside a little.) And for a variety of boring reasons I’m not drinking this go-round, which makes the season even more tedious, so to stave off boredom-induced madness, I’ve scrawled some things on the digital wall . Get out your knife and fork and dig in.

  • Eliza Griswold is a wonderful young American poet. Like most poets, her readership is appallingly limited. This is her page at the Poetry (magazine) Foundation. You can buy her debut volume, Wideawake Field, here.
  • Turns out Twitter isn’t just for beefing about sports and harassing female journalists. Some writers have started experimenting with it as a platform for bursts that are worth reading closely, and right now the best Twitter scrivener going is Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet). Here is a link to his aptly titled “A Twitter Essay about Twitter Essays.” Writes Heer: “These are essays in the classical French sense of the word: essaying a topic: an attempt, a provisional thought, a notebook entry.” Imagine if Montaigne had an iPhone!
  • Denis Johnson has a new book out. Set in post-9/11 Africa, it is called The Laughing Monsters. Just ordered my copy. It will be very good. Do you know how I know that? Because Denis Johnson wrote it.
  • Sickened by all the Christmas saccharinalia on the radio? Here is TGR favorite Dwight Yoakam covering a Tom Jones song:

  • Paul Thomas Anderson has turned Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice into what looks like a pretty good movie. But you should still read the book. It’s not Gravity’s Rainbow–it won’t kill you, unlike GR, which is much duller than its fame suggests. Want to read a huge Pynchon? Pick up Mason & Dixon.
  • Oh hey, David Lynch is rebooting Twin Peaks. Guess who has two thumbs and doesn’t care? *raises and tilts both thumbs* This guy! The show was leaden and lethargic the first time, but I had to pretend to like it during college and grad school, because all my friends said they adored it. Spoiler alert: Audrey died of meta-boredom.
  • After putting off Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940) for years, I’m finally thigh-deep in its cold currents. Theory as to at least part of Greene’s genius: no novelist is better–though a few are just as good–at subtly using his characters’ psychological states to form the epistemological tenor of the narrative universe, without employing first-person narration or hammy metaphors. For stretches of his best books, a mind shades a world that is still far more than that single mind. This is not Ruskin’s pathetic fallacy: the encompassing world remains ontologically other, it is just that we access it through such masterful filtrations. In other words, Greene takes free indirect style to the VIP level.
  • Before Tinder and OK Cupid and the less libidinous social-media platforms arose to try and distract us from our natural state of crawling loneliness, some mad souls kept the lights on by writing stuff like Notes from Underground (Dostoevsky’s idealist jilted and horrified by the impossibility of perfecting mankind) and In Memoriam A.H.H., Lord Tennyson’s at-times-unbearable cry of anguish over the early death of his best friend. While some associate professors might disagree regarding the latter, neither text is sexual or romantic; both speak to and from within the marrow-grade loneliness one feels when sitting in front of a Mark Rothko painting or listening to Astral Weeks. If you can get through In Memoriam without weeping a couple times, get thee to a doctor.
  • You’ll weep for the sins–the ongoing sins–of America if you read “The Case for Reparations,” the 2014 essay that announced Ta-Nehisi Coates as one of the language’s great young essayists. Erudite, methodical, heart-stopping.
  • Check out my former colleague Robert Samuels’s eminently readable Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free (2013). Samuels’s core thesis is that instead of funneling billions into colleges and universities via federal loans, grants, and byzantine tax breaks which individual students then use to pay tuition, the money could be given directly to schools, who would in turn offer tuition-free education. Sounds bracingly simple, right? But then creditors, including the federal government, would lose that deep, swift stream of interest payments on all those loans, loans that, unlike every other form of consumer debt, cannot be refinanced or discharged in bankruptcy. (My own from graduate school are locked in at 6.8 percent, more than double the prime rate as reported by the Wall Street Journal.) If you die, your next of kin are on the hook for the balance. And that’s why Samuels’s book, smart and humane as it is, will never affect education policy in the current American political economy.
  • The Washington Post’s Radley Balko has the best journalist name, and his book Rise of the Warrior Cop will scare the bejesus out of you. It is a chilling chronicle of the United States’ ongoing decline into a threadbare security state where carbines, tear gas, and razor wire protect the ruling ten percent from the rest of us when we aren’t busy fighting over Black Friday sales.
  • Finally, here is a thing that is funny, one of the best sight/editing gags from The Simpsons

May the new year leave you in peace, dear general readers.