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.

Fragments of Pascal’s Fragments: On the “Pensées”

In one of his letters, Wallace Stevens claims, “I have never studied systematic philosophy and should be bored to death at the mere thought of doing so” (1).  He admits dipping into a “little philosophy” sometimes—no “serious contact . . . because I have not the memory”—”in the spirit” of a friend who had renounced studied, interpretive reading in favor of “read[ing] it as a substitute for fiction,” as though Locke and Nietzsche were vagrant storytellers (2).

That is probably a useful way for poets to approach any discourse that systematizes, abstracts, or otherwise tries to theorize the mess of lived experience into some conceptual framework. Poets are into a different kind of human record-keeping. Whatever philosophizing they do is only one part of a congeries of effects: sound, syntax, image, rhythm, form, metaphor, allusion, association, narrative, intuition, characterization. Philosophy is salt in the soup, too much and it tastes wretched. “I am sorry that a poem . . . has to contain any ideas at all,” Stevens apologized elsewhere, “because its sole purpose is to fill the mind with the images & sounds it contains. A mind that examines such a poem for its prose contents gets absolutely nothing from it” (3).

Most philosophy bores the shit out of me. Or rather, while the practice of philosophy is great, I dislike most of the texts I encountered in classrooms. This is shameful and lazy, I know. I tried my best in college, taking seminars on Eighteenth-Century Empiricism, and again during graduate school, where I pretended to care about the philosophers and theorists I was then reading. I still enjoy Plato (from what I recall) on matters of the soul; Nietzsche can be funny, and J.S. Mill is tidy; cribbing from George Scialabba’s essays is a pleasure; and I can definitely get behind indeterminate weirdos like Gaston Bachelard. Oh, and Blaise Pascal. Love Pascal.

The Pensées were not published during Pascal’s life (1623-1662). He didn’t even leave a title, because there was no book yet, only a mass of lapidary fragments, some comprising a few paragraphs, many just a sentence or two. Some are probably close to the form they would have been published in. Many are rougher. But Pascal was a fine prose stylist and a mensch, so they’re all engaging. After his death, friends and family assembled the material into what is essentially the text we have today. I use the Oxford paperback translation, the introduction to which will tell you more than I can (4).

I like fragmentary texts (5). The preference probably has something to do with my disorganized poet brain (6). More importantly though, such works seem true to what life is actually like. This resonance becomes even stronger when a text is literally unfinished, fragmentary because of some event in the writer’s life (usually his death). Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, meant to be a unified theory of modern life but scuttled when the Nazis drove him to suicide, is an example. You could throw in some classical Greek or Roman poets if you want to talk lost texts.

Texts can also be fragmented—or at least rhetorically, aesthetically, and philosophically jumbled—by design or genre convention. Think of shaggy dogs like Tristram Shandy, Gothic encyclopedias in the vein of Moby-Dick, total jumbos like Bleak House, a book about paper and bureaucracy. Writers’ journals are great, too: Pepys, Kafka, Woolf, Boswell (an Enlightenment satyr with radar for strong drink), Cheever, Plath (more stuff about cookbooks and good housekeeping than you’d imagine). Jules Renard: man, that guy is awesome. Many letter collections rock, particularly the letters of poets—get Lord Byron’s when you can. Then there is table talk and other types of recorded conversation, such as Faulkner in the University. Plus epigrams like Martial’s.

Samuel Coleridge wins the fragment gold medal. Not only did he leave behind unfinished poems, unfinished lectures, unfinished letters, an unfinished critical behemoth (the Biographia Literaria), and sterling table talk (“Examine nature accurately, but write from recollection; and trust more to your imagination than to your memory” [7]), he also kept a notebook of midnight hashings: “What a swarm of thoughts and feelings, endlessly minute fragments, and, as it were, representations of all preceding and embryos of all future thought, lie compact in any one moment! . . . and yet the whole a means to nothing—ends everywhere, and yet an end nowhere” (8).

Anyway, where was I. The Pensées. It is/they are fantastic. You can wander for hours in this thing. You might set it aside for months, only to open it at random when the urge strikes, and it probably will. Reading a bit of Pascal leads to more Pascal. He intended this material to be a religious treatise, but its humanism is of such breadth and warmth that you can set the Christian apparatus aside, or at least make it share space with other approaches (9).

Hans Holbein, woodcut from the "Dance of Death" series (1549)

Hans Holbein, woodcut from the “Dance of Death” series (1549)

Within it all, one question: How do we spend our time before we don’t have any more time? That’s Death above, jumping out on a medieval bro.

In Pascal’s writing this often leads to the problem of boredom. We get bored easily. This anxiety bubbles inside his ruminations on classical authors, political power, Scripture, paganism, wine drinking (the gist: moderation), aesthetics, labor, sports, Montaigne, social ritual, spiritual hierarchies, and other human pastimes. Why would any of us be bored? For him, only the contemplation of God’s love would scratch the itch; for many of you general readers, I suspect, such faith is no longer something to grasp, even though we’ve still got all the itching—in forms like boredom—to which Christianity is one response.

Here are some choice bits arranged at random, in the spirit of the Pensées. Like a true #failedintellectual, I’ve cited them by page and fragment number in the Oxford English translation; slashes indicate paragraph-ish breaks within the fragments. You’ll find it all downright modern. Pascal would have understood iPhones and Twitter.

Man’s condition: Inconstancy, boredom, anxiety (10, his italics).

I have often said that man’s unhappiness springs from one thing alone, his incapacity to stay quietly in one room. [. . .] That is why we like noise and activity so much. That is why imprisonment is such a horrific punishment. That is why the pleasure of being alone is incomprehensible. That is, in fact, the main joy of the condition of kingship, because people are constantly trying to amuse kings and provide them with all sorts of distraction.—The king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to entertain him and prevent him from thinking about himself. King though he may be, he is unhappy if he thinks about it (11).

The feeling of the inauthenticity of present pleasures and our ignorance of the emptiness of absent pleasures causes inconstancy (12).

The whole of life goes on like this. We seek repose by battling against difficulties, and once they are overcome, repose becomes unbearable because of the boredom it engenders. We have to get away from it, and beg for commotion. We think about either our present afflictions or our future ones. Even when we think we are protected on every side, boredom with its own authority does not shrink from appearing from the heart’s depths, where it has its roots, to poison the mind (13).

It is not good to be too free. / It is not good to have everything necessary (14).

We are so unhappy that we can only take pleasure in something on condition that we should be allowed to become angry if it goes wrong (15).

It is unfair that anyone should be devoted to me, although it can happen with pleasure, and freely. I should mislead those in whom I quickened this feeling, because I am no one’s ultimate end, and cannot satisfy them. Am I not near death? So the object of their attachment will die (16).

When we read too quickly or too slowly we understand nothing (17).

Descartes useless and uncertain (18).

Anybody who does not see the vanity of the world is very vain himself. / And so who does not see it, apart from the young who are preoccupied with bustle, distractions, and plans for the future? / But take away their distractions and you will see them wither from boredom. / Then they feel their hollowness without understanding it, because it is indeed depressing to be in a state of unbearable sadness as soon as you are reduced to contemplating yourself, and without distraction from doing so (19).

Man’s greatness lies in his capacity to recognize his wretchedness. A tree does not recognize its own wretchedness. So it is wretched to know one is wretched, but there is greatness in the knowledge of one’s wretchedness (20).

The parrot’s beak, which it wipes even though it is clean (21).

Paul Valéry thought that most texts are never finished, only abandoned. Since you can extend this to the unwritten work of most lives, I’m with Pascal: “I blame equally those who decide to praise man, those who blame him, and those who want to be diverted. I can only approve those who search in anguish” (22). This life thing does bewilder you sometimes, provoking all sorts of bootless cries. “Who put me here? On whose orders and on whose decision have this place and this time been allotted to me?” (23).

Notes
1. Letters of Wallace Stevens, ed. Holly Stevens (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), p. 636.
2. For what it’s worth, your critic considers much of Stevens’s corpus a lyric parody of philosophical discourse, one meant to tantalize readers of a certain bent with the notion that a poem contains a quantum of Meaning that can be deracinated and subjected to interpretation.
3. Letters of Wallace Stevens, 251.
4. Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, ed. Anthony Levi, trans. Honor Levi (Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1995, 2008).
5. That is, if it’s good fragmentary stuff. Not something like Rev. Casaubon’s “Key to All Mythologies” project in Middlemarch. Everyone hated Casaubon.
6. As Robert Frost claims in “The Figure a Poem Makes,” scholars and poets both “work from knowledge,” but whereas “scholars get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic,” poets “stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields.” Excellent point. See “The Figure a Poem Makes” (1939), in Selected Prose of Robert Frost, eds. Hyde Cox and Edward Connery Lathem (New York: Collier, 1968), 20.
7. Coleridge: Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. Elisabeth Schneider (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1951), 464. It’s true, my home library’s Coleridge is a paperback from 1951. What? You gotta economize.
8. Ibid., 476-477.
9. One can do the same with George Herbert’s poetry and Graham Greene’s novels.
10. Pensées, pp. 36-37, fragment 146. Pascal’s italics.
11. pp. 44-45, frag. 168.
12. p. 107, frag. 107.
13. p. 46, frag. 168.
14. p. 22, frag. 90.
15. p. 22, frag. 89.
16.  p. 7, frag. 15.
17. p. 16, frag. 75.
18. p. 105, frag. 445.
19. p. 16, frag. 70.
20. pp. 36-37, frag. 146.
21. p. 35, frag. 139.
22. p. 8, frag. 24.
23. p. 26, frag. 102.

Weekend Links: Stocks, Bonds, America on Loan

The weekend just pulled into your driveway. Let’s eeease the seat back, as the man says. Here are some links to help you be as intelligent and dynamic as you can be, however chill things might get between now and Sunday. Call us whenever you want.

  • When he wasn’t curating his open-necked-shirt game, economist Thomas Piketty was writing what sounds like a mind-bending study of wealth stratification in the West since the late 1700s. You should buy Capital in the Twenty-First Century book right now, dear reader, as these two reviews (John Cassidy in the New Yorker and Paul Krugman for the NY Review of Books) advise; but don’t try to use Amazon, because it is sold out there. Harvard UP’s Belknap label is scrambling to print more. Let’s hope their scrappy operation can pull through! In the meantime, ruminate on the fact that a work of academic scholarship that is still in hardcover sold this much this fast (it was released only five weeks ago). You can also download the homie’s Technical Appendix for free if you want to wade into some Excel spreadsheets, wizard-math modeling, deep-cover historical footnotes, and other academic flora.
  • America, meet yourself. Sarah Kendzior has written a cool-eyed but harrowing narrative (“The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back”) on the efforts of Midwestern fast-food employees to organize for a living wage. Built almost lyrically around the accounts of individual witnesses, this ethnography of labor will remind you that economic collapses are usually also moral catastrophes. Millionaire stockholders and billionaire capital managers exist thanks to workers who, thanks to millionaires and billionaires, don’t make enough to buy a bus pass. If the United States really were an Enlightenment democracy, if the twenty-first century hadn’t become a grim rewind of the late 1800s, Kendzior wouldn’t have needed to write anything. Her work here is so bracing, I don’t mind that the title’s phrasal adjective is missing a hyphen. (Should be “Minimum-Wage,” unless it’s a very subtle pun. I know, I’m a pedant.) Read SK’s work wherever you can—Al Jazeera America publishes a lot of it—because she’s fantastic. Her Twitter feed is also lively. Oh, and she has a PhD in anthropology. Amazing how those useless degrees turn out to be useful.
  • Welfare for humans, bad! Welfare for corporations, very good! (But keep it quiet.) WalMart is on food stamps, y’all, and the company is just about the only food-stamp recipient who deserves your scorn. Add this to your purple-rage-inducing knowledge that ExxonMobil gets federal subsidies and Apple stashes money in Irish shell companies and et fucking cetera.
  • Science is finally catching up with literature: Research published last October in Science indicates that “literary” reading (basically, immersion in fictional narratives that compel aesthetic and philosophical attention while also entertaining the reader) makes you better at recognizing that other people are autonomous subjects, not merely actors in your personal movie. Humanists have been making this argument for centuries. In a recent essay titled “Why Fiction Does It Better,” Lisa Zunshine (whose scholarship draws on narrative art as well as neuroscience) updates the case. No doubt President Obama will mention this in his UC Irvine commencement address.
  • Working within the Population Dynamics Research Group at USC, Dowell Myers and Joel Pitkin have assembled a fascinating report with a deeply academic title, “The Generational Future of Los Angeles: Projections to 2030 and Comparisons to Recent Decades.” Partial preview: The city’s population is not growing quickly, far fewer immigrants are arriving anymore (contra paleocons like Pat “CULTURE WAR MEXIFORNIA” Buchanan), and we need to spend smarter on our educational infrastructure immediately. Angelenos, I promise the report is quite readable, so read it.
  • More on John Keats, language wonder, in the coming weeks; for now, here is a poom by Emily Dickinson—for my money, the purest practitioner of lyric in English not named Shakespeare. The odd punctuation, syntax, and capitalization is all hers. Snakes in a backyard!

A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met him? Did you not
His notice instant is –

The Grass divides as with a Comb –
A spotted Shaft is seen,
And then it closes at your Feet
And opens further on –

He likes a Boggy Acre –
A Floor too cool for Corn –
But when a Boy and Barefoot
I more than once at Noon

Have passed I thought a Whip Lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled And was gone –

Several of Nature’s People
I know and they know me
I feel for them a transport
Of Cordiality

But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.

Friday Night Links

No rambling original ruminations on literature tonight, only some great links with competent commentary. Stay safe this weekend. Read too much.

  • From the LA Review of Books, a concise, perceptive review of the latest volume of Hemingway’s letters. Published by Cambridge University Press, this is Volume 2 (of a projected sixteen!), and according to Joshua Kotin it is beautiful even though it doesn’t “fundamentally alter our understanding of Hemingway or his art or modernism or American literature[.]” These missives “complement, rather than revise, the mythologies cultivated and analyzed by countless artifacts — novels, memoirs, films, biographies, and, of course, Hemingway’s own writing,” he argues, concluding that while “the letters are wonderful; they are not crucial.” My favorite part of the review is the end, where Kotin speculates on the possibility of a database containing all the networks of responses between cultural potentates from the Modernist era, a “complete letters of modern art.” 
  • Historian Jill Lepore once again graces The New Yorker. This time she writes about Roger Ailes (Fox News’ begetter), William Randolph Hearst (the early-twentieth-century jingoist publishing magnate), and American tastes in news. The piece will introduce you to the fantastically named Cora Baggerly Older (Hearst’s official biographer) and her husband Fremont Older. Fremont Older!
  • Do hubcaps serve a purpose? No, they do not. So does my beloved forest-green 1995 Camry need to stop flowing with the mysterious black wheels? No, it does not. Thanks as always, Car Talk, for the clarity: you should have won some Pulitzers.
  • Pacific Standard on the continuing water horror in West Virginia. Turns out that allowing your state regulatory infrastructure to decay is a very bad idea. Read about this right now if you haven’t already done so. America gets her coal from often-incompetent companies that poison Appalachia, one of America’s treasures, and too many Appalachians, especially rich dumbasses with ties to those companies, keep helping. I grew up in a VA/West VA border town called Covington, deep in enormous tracts of National Forest land, and I knew some ghastly water there. The town sits on the Jackson River, which feeds Virginia’s freshwater mainline, the James River; and the Westvaco (now MeadWestvaco) paper mill sits on Covington. As the Commonwealth of Virginia officially puts it, “There is a two mile segment, from the water treatment plant in Covington to City Park in Covington[,] that is legally navigable, but is not recommended for recreation due to heavy industry.” When I lived there in the 1990s, the mill—most people just called it “the mill”—was Covington’s biggest employer, even though it was (and still is) shrinking its workforce, thanks to progressive automation and the willingness of other nations to host paper-pulp facilities that produce incredible amounts of toxic waste. The size of the plant is staggering: as a teenager I would drive up the wide street on the bluffs across from its holding ponds and light towers, and pretend I was sneaking past the Death Star. Above Covington is some of the sweetest fly fishing in the eastern United States. Below the mill, the oily river smells like frog guts. Maybe things have gotten better since I left for college. But probably not, given Virginia’s light-regulation ethos and the fact that the Bush administration had a decade to hollow out the EPA. Please leave a comment if you have some news.
  • Just look at this Miller Lite TV spot from the mid-1990s. In case you miss the subtitle at the beginning, that silver-haired gentleman is Kenny “The Snake” Stabler, a satyr (according to Wikipedia he “was known for studying his playbook by the light of a nightclub jukebox and for his affinity for female fans”) who quarterbacked the Raiders to a Super Bowl win in 1977, and the guy in the comfy shirt is Dan Fouts, the most successful bearded quarterback in NFL history. (He wasn’t all that successful.) A suburban eatery? Bottled swill? Well-compensated passive-aggressive male companionship? Off-camera lady voice? Floppy shirt collars? This one has it all.
  • Amy Clampitt is a solid poet. Not enough people read her work. Here is a link to one of her poems, “Vacant Lot With Pokeweed.” Go there. It is brief and will make your weekend better, I promise.

Small Thoughts on a Huge Book: David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest”

I.
Although he never won a National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, PEN/Faulkner Award, or a Pulitzer Prize—a good sign of how little such commendations mean—David Foster Wallace’s literary importance does not need much defending. (Besides, the MacArthur people did throw him one of those mega-grants.) Few serious American writers are better known. I would wager any amount of money that his reputation will hold up as long as English does, and at the core of this esteem will be Infinite Jest, his haunting, borderline-indescribable epic novel that I finished re-reading this week. It took nearly four months because, like all months, these were teeming with work and other distractions.

Wallace’s fame is relative, of course. Contemporary American society as a convulsive whole will never grant him anything like the profile of cool but lighter objects like Quentin Tarantino or the NBA; the moronic inferno (a phrase Saul Bellow lifted from Wyndham Lewis) has some good parts but rarely values works or entities that are intellectually, aesthetically, or emotionally complicated. There is nothing new about pointing out that mass culture isn’t much for thinking deeply while getting its heart broken and remade. Wallace knew this and seemed to realize that obsessing about it would not do anything besides paralyze a writer.

II.
Let me dust off my academic hat and say something about one of Jest‘s big themes and how the book’s structure contests it. Form and Content, people. I’ll spread this over a few sections.

The modes of consumption available within contemporary markets (markets that have been developing since Shakespeare’s time, the onset of European empire) can do awful things to the societies that enable and contain them. Capitalism has always found it necessary to stoke or invent our impulses, especially the greedy ones, but twenty-first-century global capitalism, or whatever you might call it, is extraordinarily reliant upon consumers with a twitchy, impatient need for more new stimuli right fucking now. The historian David Courtwright refers to this as capitalism’s “limbic turn,” and even reasonably self-aware people have difficulty evading the hyperactive gestalt that results from it. I haven’t. I just scanned my iTunes library for some reason even though I was not listening to music, then worried about posting this on the blog’s Twitter feed for all six of our readers. And so forth.

Narcotics (a heading under which booze definitely falls) and visual entertainment are the most prominent forms of pleasure in the novel. Its two main characters—one in recovery, one approaching a ghastly breakdown—have drug problems. Much of the book takes place in a halfway house for addicts. But it depicts plenty of other addictions that are just as catastrophic: addictions to sex, to dissembling, to work, to food, to various instantiations of social prestige, to violence and cynicism. Each of these is what Don Gately, one of those two central characters, has learned in AA to call “the Substance.” You needn’t be able to physically handle something for it to be a Substance. Many are emphatically not things you can smoke, drink, snort, or shoot. Americans tend to be discomfited by this.

In phenomenological terms what distinguishes all Substances is their ability to establish a nasty feedback loop between themselves and our worst Western tendency, which is to retreat into the self. You see this when people like Mitt Romney and the Koch brothers, whose accountants help them stash Olympian wealth in various spiderholes, behave as though they are one tax increase away from a box on Skid Row. You’ve experienced this if you have ever been around a serious opiates addict, and seen how they disappear into nods. At one point near the novel’s beginning its nameless omniscient narrator, who splits time with the characters, remarks that “American experience seems to suggest that people are virtually unlimited in their need to give themselves away, on various levels. Some just prefer to do it in secret.”

Infinite Jest takes place in a near future, as American society undergoes an accelerating collapse into obsessive, lonely pleasures. One of the book’s running jokes is that the USA now rules an entity called the Organization of North American Nations, or O.N.A.N. Tendencies that will always bedevil any society which prizes wealth and democratic “independence” have hypertrophied and are keeping sales brisk. The cultural prognosis is grim. As Wallace liked to say, this is a sad book.

III.
A world like this, like ours (published in 1996, IJ is probably set in what would have been the 2010s, although in the novel’s present the years don’t have numbers anymore, just names sponsored by corporations), has a rough time with long texts. If one finds it hard to watch an episode of Breaking Bad in one go, then a thousand-page novel will be appalling. And so what arises throughout the culture is a suspicion that if a book is long, then it must be too long. I have met several otherwise intelligent people who deploy some version of the theory that while DFW was brilliant, he “needed an editor.”

Which he did have! Said editor was apparently OK with the book’s girth, and probably cut plenty before it was published.

It isn’t that people consciously want Infinite Jest to be Ethan Frome. But when attention spans wither a long novel is going to spook most readers into finding external reasons for not trying at all. It’s so big—no wonder people don’t finish it.

I don’t think the final form of Jest needs to be reduced. As published, it is not a mess of narrative appendages or dead ends, like many sprawling novels unintentionally are. Nothing feels out of place or redundant. Every word in the book is perfect, and when someone tries the “editor” tack, even if they have actually read some of Wallace’s stories or essays, I can’t help filing them under Second-Rate Taste. (Kingsley Amis said you could do the same with anyone who denies that Shakespeare is the greatest poet in the language.) A writer, especially a brilliant one, can put whatever he or she pleases into a work, whether or not some prospective readers want an imaginary proofer to condense things. It might be that Infinite Jest pisses off a lot of people, because it is regarded as a Cool Thing to know about in many cosmopolitan circles but is not easy to consume.

You can listen to all of Aphex Twin’s albums in a weekend. Same for Kubrick’s films. You might nibble on some Flannery O’Connor and talk later at the bar like you’ve got her covered. You cannot do that with an epic. You can try pretending that you’ve read it, but for anyone with a literary education and a decent radar for the kind of cultural-capital bullshit that some intellectuals try to sling at parties, bluffing is easy to spot. Plus, only that sort of nerd is going to care in the first place about how you read some long book.

Get off the fence. Don’t count your books—this is worth a pile of smaller ones. Besides, you are already spending time on a silly blog about books and Culture. Whatever you would otherwise be reading, you aren’t missing much even if Jest takes you six months to finish. Cf. Bleak House.

IV.
Wallace hung himself in 2008, as you may have heard. It embarrasses me to write it, but my first reaction to the news was resentment as much as sadness, as though he had stolen his talent back from the rest of us. God, the gods and goddesses, the Prime Mover, the watchmaker, the universe, whoever, whatever, takes a little extra time to wire you up as a someone who could make language do things that would stop an angel’s heart, and you pull your own plug at 46? Even when explicable—and it usually is—suicide is pure wastage, a cruel thing to lay on people who love you; and I only loved the writing, having (duh) never met the man. Near the end, his friends and family were frightened and watched him closely. He hung himself when his wife stepped out of the house. Jonathan Franzen, who was close to Wallace, got criticized for confessing that anger was part of the emotional blowback for everyone who loved Wallace. Lazy critics don’t reward honesty.

But Wallace lived most of his life with a strain of depression that many sufferers, however tough or gifted or well-medicated or lucky, don’t survive: the frantic walking nightmare of being “Buried above ground,” as William Cowper wrote in 1773, frequently leads to the pistol or the sealed garage. Outside of certain passages in Infinite Jest (Kate Gompert’s hospital intake, Hal’s monologues, Joelle’s preparation for her overdose), the only books I know of that come close to evoking this pain are William Styron’s memoir Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s astonishing “Atlas of Depression,” The Noonday Demon.

V.
I plan to read Infinite Jest about once a decade. (Dan does this every year with Gatsby.) This was the first replay, and as you would expect, reading it at 32 was different from reading it at 23. Granted, the novel shocked me back then, when I felt what Wallace calls the “click” of writing that speaks at the blood level to someone.

But now, when like pretty much every other grown-up on the planet I have actually lost people whom I cared about as an adult to illness, suicide, addiction, geographical and psychic distance, infidelity and selfish anger, to a bouquet of the universe’s surprises, of which our own meanderings and fuck-ups are a huge part (and when I know to expect lots more), finishing wasn’t a moment when I sighed and inwardly congratulated myself for being sensitive, not to mention persistent—long book, you know.

Finishing was visceral this time and I suppose that is the point. It was something like being emptied then filled with grief for the species, not just my own piddling self. I cried in private (I admit it, stop laughing) the way I do in some situations with certain works that aren’t trivial like the stuff I consume when driving, exercising, cooking, cleaning, and doing most everything else in my life. Part of my weeping list might go: some of Philip Larkin’s late poems, a couple of Hamlet’s speeches, the “Ode to Joy” at the end of Beethoven’s Ninth, the nameless boy soldier on the cover of Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, the first field recording of “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues,” certain Psalms (King James Version only, bruh), Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” the Gettysburg Address. Usually words or music are the trigger. I was not thinking much about my admirable sensitivity. Instead I was having to deal with the reality that, well-trained sensibility or none, everybody is going to disappear one day, and that it is easy to die having never really known anyone besides yourself. A shocking moment for someone who is usually a selfish dick! Of course I can only offer this as a subjective and perhaps mawkish reaction. If the first part is true, though, it is difficult to explain Wallace’s sales.

VI.
Ironically, in building a world racked by loneliness—really an entire world, the kind only big books can assemble—Infinite Jest demonstrates that it is possible to reject or at least postpone drinking the cup of poison that modernity waggles at us. One needn’t buy the fantasy of constant, easy, tailored diversions. The novel’s multi-voiced giant performance shows that under some conditions art can help ward off solipsism, by (for example) socializing the reader into the long haul of a text that doesn’t seek to flatter or distract one, a phrase I have the feeling I stole from Wallace, though I can’t track it down. Reading is a mode of empathy. One can’t help being drawn out and then drawn into the book’s crowded, grimy Boston.

You read the novel, which a person made. Some evil mothers will try to tell you that everything is just dirt, as Lou Reed has it, and, further, climate change can’t be fixed with literature. Nonetheless in Wallace’s fiction life does have a tenuous meaning. We save ourselves by being present in our own lives, which in turn makes it possible to love others, even if the nature of mortality is to eventually fail at both things, since you die at the end of the story. Wallace took his title from the graveyard scene in Hamlet, the play’s funniest and most terrifying passage, for a reason.

Saturday Links: Fighting the Bloat

We’ve all made bad choices over the last few days. Our guts are in states of revolt, and we feel encased in thin layers of booze and butter. It will take weeks of kale and green tea to make this right. Running is necessary, but so awful. Sitting. Sitting and reading is the thing. So here are some items to sit and read while our bodies try and undo the damage we’ve done.

  • If you need to feel better about the amount of wine (and other spirits) you imbibed over the last few days, this little post about James Boswell’s Book of Company and Liquors should do the trick. Boswell is one of this blog’s patron saints, along with Hitchens, Amis, Didion, Faulkner, Baldwin… The man was a spectacular writer and drinker, and an unreconstructed lech. The fact that he recorded what he and his dinner guests drank is not at all surprising, as he basically kept accounts of everything in his life, like Fitzgerald did in his ledgers. But the amount of booze he and his bros drank in a given night is just shocking. How the man made it even to 55 is something scientists should be studying.
  • John Warner’s Just Visiting blog over at The Chronicle of Higher Ed is always worth your time, but his latest post about what to do about the sad state of higher ed is required reading. He echoes a lot of what we’ve been saying on this blog for a long time, but his sense that we should do “nothing” about our schools might rub some people the wrong way, particularly progressives and libertarian technophiles who think that every problem needs an innovative solution. Warner’s “nothing” isn’t nothing though. He’s saying that we need to STOP doing the things that aren’t working, like buying kids iPads, devising “better” tests, and constantly changing our standards. How about we just focus on teaching kids to read, write, and reason? I know, sounds revanchist and crazy. Best to keep innovating, because that’s worked out so well.
  • The 92nd Street Y in New York has hosted an eclectic series of speakers and performers since it opened its doors over a hundred years ago. Now you can watch videos of over 1,000 of these events on their website. This is the kind of digital education we can get behind.
  • Good lord, the art world is shady. If you need further proof, check out the documentaries The Art of the Steal (streaming on Netflix) and Stolen.
  • Thanks to Adam Ted Jacobson for sending me this link to Thomas Frank’s latest dose of truth. Frank is that rare writer who can write a positive review of something while also questioning its entire purpose. This piece might be his most on-point yet.

Garden Party

Stressed out by our posts on the sea of troubles in which American higher education is flailing? Relax. That’s one of the main things gardens have been for since there have been gardens (besides the whole growing-food aspect).

● Although binge-spending on campus amenities is problematic in a lot of infuriating and scary ways, it does mean that many American schools (at least those that end up on the dumb ranking lists barfed out by Forbes and US News and other magazines every year) have remained passable facsimiles of Arcardia. Yes, I’m being aesthetically charitable, but schools with competitive admission profiles spend major funds on landscaping for a reason: an environment distinguished by transplanted ornamental trees, machine-shorn lawns, stone fountains, ivy wired to buildings, and other postmodern-bucolic stuff is meant to evoke the repose necessary for deep thought and complex scholarship. That’s why Plato taught in an olive grove. Also, it entices prospective students with all sorts of green nooks for smoking weed in.

● Read all about the above, and more, in Robert Pogue Harrison’s magisterial Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. It’s actually more of a book than an essay. If the untamed side of things is more your style, he also wrote a book called Forests: The Shadow of Civilization. It is also good.

● Maybe grab a couple other garden tomes? None of us read enough anyway. These would be the Oxford Companion to the Garden (wonderful even though the British origin makes you put up with lots of colour and vigour and missing commas) and Michael Pollan’s Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. Contra the ad pitch on Pollan’s website, it is not “a modern Walden,” because it doesn’t have any boring stretches where you want to die or go read Emerson instead. Built upon an autobiographical foundation (there is great stuff about lawn care on suburban Long Island after World War II), the text is ultimately a hybrid of cultural history, botanical inquiry (the stuff about weeds is rhapsodic and sensible at the same time), gardening advice, and ethical meditation. Pollan’s central claim is that gardening, unlike (say) American wilderness worship or a vague feeling for the poor Amazon, reminds us, over and over, that human experience takes place within a life-world that we must simultaneously exploit, care for, and love deeply.

● Staying with the literary angle, refresh yourself with Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden.” Over the years critics have gone at it with all kinds of ideological crowbars, but you shouldn’t forget Philip Larkin’s remark that the poem might be best understood as “a good description of the mind of someone half-asleep under the summer trees in a garden” (“The Changing Face of Andrew Marvell,” collected in his Required Writing).

● Rich people usually have nice land around their homes. Often that land bears complicated gardens. And if rich people go broke and then go crazy, they sometimes do it in high style, as Grey Gardens reminds us. I’ve seen this documentary three or four times, and it never ceases to be demonically compelling. Don’t call it a “cult classic.” It’s just a classic. Man, WASPs have some weird genes.

● Merely eccentric wealthy people tend to be a lot more functional, and one of them, Madame Ganna Walska, left behind the coolest, most variegated, enchanting garden I have ever been to, Lotusland in Montecito, California. If you are ever in the Santa Barbara area and have a few hours, go. It is absolutely worth the steep admission fee ($35). They sometimes do free-tour days, but those are tough to get.

● I have a little kitchen garden, and bugs and weeds get in it all the time, which MAKES ME SO ANGRY. These people can help: the University of California Integrated Pest Management Program. Caution: this site’s mesmerizing level of visual and written detail, along with its intense dedication to helping you do the practical stuff that keeps a garden functional, will take up lots of your free time, if you garden.

● Aesthetics aside, we also need more working gardens in urban neighborhoods that lack decent grocery stores. Gardens are nice to walk through and look at, but they can also help bring down America’s catastrophic rates of obesity and diabetes, scourges that are concentrated in the places where poor people live. From the LA Times, here is a touching story about how kids in a scruffy part of Los Angeles are maintaining local garden clubs.

● Here is a snapshot of Wallace Stevens watering his rose garden in  West Hartford, Connecticut sometime in the 1930s. Note that he is wearing a suit. The image is housed in the archives of The Huntington Library in Pasadena, which also happens to maintain some astonishing gardens; the photographer is unknown.

Stevens watering roses - mid 1930s - Huntington archive

● And here is that scene from Disney’s version of Alice in Wonderland that has inspired thousands of budding artists and similar weirdos, and subtly terrified millions of children more.

● We’ll leave you with some more music. Have a listen to the Stone Temple Pilots’ corny but energizing “Wicked Garden” (the garden seems to be a metaphor for something). Kind of fun to mute the Alice clip above and play this:

● . . . or maybe you should just stick with Beethoven’s 6th, the “Pastoral” symphony: