“Moving to Iowa Falls was like going back in time, I say, belching out weed smoke. The light is frayed grayscale. Empty bottles turret the tabletops.
“BACK IN TIME!” KJ shouts. “Fucking Huey Lewis and the News!”
“Fireworks over Riverbend Rally and jumping from motorboats and weed in the ditches. Camping and skinny-dipping when the fire started going out.” I go on and on, laughing to myself, eyes sewn shut. “It was like Grease or something. Cruising Main Street and fistfights. Dances after football games and homecoming parades. It was all Mayberry and shit.”
“MAYBERRY! MOTHERFUCKING MAYBERRY!” KJ yells, standing. He mutters something about pissing and uses the wall to feel his way out of the room.
“It’s called Iowa, Happy,” Ronnie says. “No bad guys come from Iowa Falls. Not until Happy Lemon! Yeah, playa!” He laughs and nods, then says that nothing was better than SoCal back in the day.
“Stockton,” Tree says solemnly, and pretends to pour his beer on the floor. “Get that shit right.”
“Shiiiiiit, bro!” Ronnie leans back into the couch and smiles. “Fuck that place.”
I laugh and keep talking, but hardly anyone is listening anymore. Tom and Tree and Ian are watching TV and playing cards. KJ comes back and passes out cold, and Ronnie is blazed. I chug and mumble to myself about fields of soybeans and corncribs in the moonlight. Gravel jamming through the countryside in old Chevelles. Getting high and the Doors and tripping our balls off and Black Sabbath.
“We had fucking birds in the freezer, man.”
“What the fuck did you say, Happy?” Ian turns.
“Pull it together, man! You’re hardly speaking English.”
Everyone is looking at me.
“Birds. We had dead ones … dead birds in the freezer. I’d get some ice, and there one would be. Dead grackles, man. A house finch. Fucking birds, you know? A bird. Wings and beaks and shit? Birds.”
“GRACKLE!” KJ is awake again. “Fucking grackles. That’s crazy good.”
“You serious? That’s fucked up is what it is.”
“Loco shit, Happy.” Ronnie laughs. “But my moms had a taco stand!”
“What? A taco van?”
“Naaaw, I’m playing, you fool! Fucking taco stand.” Ronnie slaps his thigh. “Jesus, no, silly fucks. It was all concrete jungle for me. Ghetto birds!”
“We had birds in the freezer.”
“Happy’s studying too much, it’s making him hallucinate. He thinks he’s fucking Audubon.”
“Assholes.” I pick a shred of loose chew from my lip. “Ma and Bob are artists, man. We had wild shit—bowling balls rolling around the floors, busted mirrors on the walls. Snakeskins tacked above the dinner table. It was awesome.” I shake my head and try to laugh it off. I don’t usually talk to my teammates about how I was raised because I want to fit in with them. “Fuckin’ loved it.” I smile, but part of me has always resented it.
“Happy, you’re a goofy bastard. You know that homes?”
This is a passage from the opening chapter of Lemon’s memoir. The list of “rules”—by which I mean the things I’ve been trained to teach my students for what constitutes “good writing”—this dialogue breaks is long. It doesn’t progress the plot. It doesn’t reveal anything about the personalities of the characters (not exactly true but I’ll come back to this). It doesn’t edit natural dialogue—langy, repetitive, fragmentary—to make it literary and intelligible.
In short: this shit would get annihilated in a workshop.
Which makes it great. It’s the most NFive dialogue I’ve read in a very long time. We get so much of it throughout Lemon’s memoir of brain injury, and gradually I came to feel so fully there in the scene. It’s Knausgaardian maybe. Lemon’s greatest talent is his ability (not just through dialogue; chiefly through sensory detail) to so fully recreate the moments of his past, and to edit this dialogue as we naturally tend to as writers would be to lie about the moment. It’s stunning.
But stunning only in retrospect. I wasn’t much “amazed” by the book as others often are by “good writing”—that is, I didn’t feel the language of the book was trying to dazzle me by its goodness. Sure, there are lots of watch-me-now verbs, but more so I was struck by this goofball dialogue. It’s how these characters talk, and when you spend enough time among them you start to hear the very subtle emotional shifts among such nonstop braggadocio.
I loved it. I loved watching literary dialogue get opened up like this.
Contrary to such alarmist demands [from Obama et al that we need to add more STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) graduates], Falling Behind? makes a convincing case that even now the US has all the high-tech brains and bodies it needs, or at least that the economy can absorb. Teitelbaum points out that “US higher education routinely awards more degrees in science and engineering than can be employed in science and engineering occupations.” Recent reports reinforce his claim. A 2014 study by the National Science Board found that of 19.5 million holders of degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, only 5.4 million were working in those fields, and a good question is what they do instead. The Center for Economic Policy and Research, tracing graduates from 2010 through 2014, discovered that 28 percent of engineers and 38 percent of computer sciencetists [sic!] were either unemployed or holding jobs that did not need their training.
Oh, so did I! But I didn’t want that. I wanted to be an extrovert! An extrovert!
This passage comes at page 336 (of 420-some) of the third volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, after he reads about the key difference between Dalglish and his Liverpool soccer teammate Kevin Keegan. It’s simply great, the passage. One concern my NF students have is how to write from the perspective of our younger selves. Are you allowed to use words you wouldn’t have used when you were 7? If no: how do you make the experience interesting and insightful? If yes: how do you make it feel authentic and not as though you’re now, as an author, giving your young self big ideas you never had?
This passage is great for the way it shows us how. Knausgaard gives the writing a childish syntax (the short sentences, the single-sentence paragraphs, the repetition) while allowing himself an adult diction (the “mental cancer” bit) that can put the passage into a greater perspective. In other words, the syntax lets us hear and feel his despair, and the diction tells us something of what that experience was like or what it meant.
Before I started using next-door-neighbor Jim Black’s hunting trailer as a summertime teen hideout, the bulk of the sleepovers I had in the neighborhood growing up were at James Darne’s house. He lived up at the bottom of Fall Place, the older of two boys, and around about age 9 his parents gave him the run of the downstairs, making the entirety of it his bedroom. Like our downstairs, it had a shelf running all along the walls at about boy-shoulder height. The back wall of James’s basement, though, the one opposite the front windows, was covered above this shelf ledge in mirrored tile with gold veining.
I’m afraid to write this post because I’m going to get it all wrong, because so little about what makes this guy amazing looks good on paper. Like, you’ll never see Comedy Central turn him into a lousy tweetmacro.
This “problem” with Fadem will I hope slowly become the very thing I want to champion.
Josh Fadem is a comic in his low 30s from Tulsa, Oklahoma. He now lives in Los Angeles. He does sketch and standup. Vids of the former are more forthcoming online:
You’ll see a Chaplin/Keaton/Atkinson influence. Clowning. Fadem looks funny (see above) and he knows he looks funny and one way to touch on his genius is to say that he knows how to let himself be silly. More on that later. Here’s how the slapstick stuff enters into his standup:
A few weeks ago I saw Fadem do an hour at Doc’s Lab in North Beach and it was maybe the best hour of standup I’ve ever seen. He opened with similar micstand mishaps, and then after a good three or four minutes of it he grabbed the mic and the first thing that came out of his mouth was a brash and nasal tone singing Ray Parker Jr’s, Ghostbusters theme:
“Duh-nuh-NAH-nuh-NAH-nuh. Duh-nuh-nuh-nuh-NUH-NAH-NUH. Duh-nuh-NAH-nuh-NAH-nuh.” Ghost…TRUSTERS! I trust them! They’re just ghosts. It’s not a big deal. “If there’s somethin’ strange…” What’s strange about it? It’s just a ghost!
Etc. The bit continued accordingly. If being in stitches means that your sides hurt from laughing so hard I was in stitches.
Now: there’s no way for me to convince you that this was extremely funny. I can try to convince you how it was smart, but it wasn’t very smart. It was mostly stupid. It wasn’t one note hit over and over again, because Fadem grabbed additional lyrics (“I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghost”, “Trustin’ makes me feel good”) that let him develop the bit. But not really. It was mostly a loud and silly bit about a guy who trusts ghosts. (more…)
The other weekend my friend Adam pointed out how my worrying over certain problems with tech/media was a kind of conservatism. Tony Judt’s talked about this, how as the Right has embraced free markets and libertarianism more and more it’s become the job of the Left to preserve/conserve certain American values: union labor, environmental conservation, social democracy, safety nets, etc.
What I want to do to feel good is make things, and this is my chief problem with what I mean by “tech” (i.e., phone apps and interactive media): it doesn’t help me create anything. In fact, it encourages the opposite; hashtag games, ice-bucket challenges, even likes and reposts all reward a kind of open conformity. (Adam had fun making fun of me for sincerely calling myself “a child of the 90s”.) One way to respond is with ludditisim. But I don’t want to be that person.
I want to find a way to not shuffle backward into the future, eyes on the sepia-toned past. If I were a filmmaker or photographer, the way forward would be clear. Phone cameras are good now! As a writer, it’s less clear. Everyone’s writing online. A luddite would start writing on a manual typewriter, “to get back to original prose rhythms” or something. One less conservative way forward would be to embrace the medium and write for it better. Like: to develop an aesthetics of the post. Online writing could use a good critic. The problem of course is that everyone’s a critic, and that criticism comes in the form of shares or comments forums.
Another way forward is to find stuff of the present that’s new and original and championing it, then extrapolating what makes them good and new and applying it to one’s own work. Like Dali reading Freud or Warhol growing up in Pittsburgh. Two things come to mind here: The Comedy of Josh Fadem and The Art of Superjail!. Since online aesthetics[*] are telling me that this post is already too long, I’ll touch on why each of these is new and important in separate posts to come.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
One thing I’ve already noticed about online writing is that links (clickbaity ones or otherwise) either (a) do the job or (b) negate the necessity of introductory paragraphs. If I’m reading a thing because I’ve been enticed to click to it you don’t have me at the same level of attention as if I’ve turned the page on something I’ve bought. In other words: get to the point. How can we artfully start with the point and then artfully develop it?↵
N & I finally caught the Bruce Jenner interview everyone tweeted about a couple weeks ago. It was not hard-hitting. At one point early on, Diane Sawyer asked him point blank, “Are you a woman?” Jenner said he was, “for all intents and purposes.” He said that despite the male body he’s lived in for 60+ years, he has the “heart and soul” of a woman.
Here was the point for Sawyer to ask the question I ask more than any other, especially of students and people I’m interviewing: What does that mean?”
Instead, they cut to archival footage of his Olympic victory.
I don’t imagine Jenner—or even Sawyer for that matter, given her confusion about Jenner’s situation—has read Judith Butler, so it’s not like I wanted them to start talking about gender as a performance. But this is what gender is, and Jenner is beginning to perform “female” with his hair and skin and nails and jewelry and blouses. We all do it. I’m “male” because I buy certain clothes. I wear my hair a certain way. I ask people to use male pronouns when referring to me.
What does it mean for Jenner, then, that he has the soul of a woman? What are the traits in there that distinguish it from the soul of a man? How does his soul—his genuine, unperformed self—differ from mine? Any answer I might come up with for him brings us back into the realm of lockstep gender traditions. Is his soul passive? Is it nurturing? Is it social? What does that mean?
There’s more to say here in a longer post about the genderqueer, essentialism and legislation, or desire and public perception, but my point here is that Sawyer missed an opportunity at bringing notions of gender fluidity to light. Also: a soul is not a performative space.
Unless, of course, you’re a reality TV star.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
“I’m me,” he said in the interview. “My brain is much more female than it is male. That’s what my soul is. Bruce lives a lie. She [how he referred to his post-transition self] is not a lie.”↵
Not that this was the aim of the interview. The teasing throughout about what a post-trans Jenner would look like, and what name he’ll go by—neither of which data were actually revealed—showed us that what we spent two hours watching was a long trailer for his forthcoming reality show on the subject.↵
When I was younger and saw stuff like this I’d leap out of my seat to point out what was false and corny about it. Now when I look at stuff like this I think, Good for them for having made something new without dredging up something old and laughing at it.
Like: can’t you just see a comedian-filled shot-for-shot remake of this going viral, tiredly?
From Justin E.H. Smith’s “The Joke”, an essay from the April 2015 Harper’s:
It is exceedingly difficult these days to call attention to the dull-minded policing by academics and online activists without being ridiculed in return as a frightened, ignorant old man who bemoans “political correctness.” We do not wish to be assimilated to those old duffers who wear Hawaiian shirts and do not understand why we can no longer call a dame a dame, and so we avoid worrying in public about the phenomenon. We stop ourselves even when we find that our peers have begun half-rationalizing the assassination of cartoonists on the basis of a glancing judgment that their drawings were racist, a judgment that rests only on the overt content of the images, generally without any translation of the French captions, without any consideration of context or pragmatics, and without any concern for the relationship of any individual cartoon to its creator’s body of work. In this age of visual illiteracy, of perfect tone-deafness to satire, the murders get cast as a blow not against freedom of expression, against subtlety, nuance, and laughter, but against racism. So, the thinking goes, adieu.
The essay’s opening, of which this graf is a part, ends with a comment about “the false presumption that humor is but one of the minor protectorates of freedom, when in fact humor is freedom itself, or at least freedom’s highest expression.”
This, for the record, is precisely the problem I had with Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. Despite her continual uses of humor, she argues in the book that there are some topics that are too serious to be joked about, without ever considering that their utter seriousness is what obliges us to make jokes. This seems to be the faulty line of thinking behind those protesting the PEN Awards. The second we decide something is out of bounds for humor, we are in its thrall.
Of course, I’m not the first person to make this argument. Subscribers to Harper’s (which means all of you, right?) can read the whole piece here.
The other night my friend Jim Gavin came to talk to my students about his book—the very funny and moving Middle Men I quoted from in the last post. On our way from my office to the classroom, I had to piss. This is what I said to him, out loud: “I have to piss.” I went into the men’s room and urinated.
Then, last night, Neal and I were talking in bed before falling asleep, and during the conversation I had to use the restroom. This is what I said to him, out loud, in our bedroom: “I have to use the restroom.” I went into our bathroom and urinated.
I’ve been stuck all day on the question of which guy is the one I’m supposed to trust. Who was posing, and why? And Jesus: what the hell am I supposed to do if they both were?