Thursday, July 30, 2015

Sex, With E.L. Doctorow

E.L. Doctorow died last week Tuesday, at the age of 84. I've scanned my library to see how many of his titles I have. Seven, it turns out -- and I've given away five others. I did another inventory of sorts, and concluded he is probably the most partially-read author taking space on my shelves.

Not the send-off a lifelong Man Of Letters might hope for, but on deeper consideration it's not so bad, either. Sometimes a back-handed compliment remains a compliment nonetheless.

I've read five of his novels and one collection of short stories to completion, and made a bold start on all of the others. My first Doctorow novel was the mass-market paperback release of Billy Bathgate. I enjoyed it well enough, at the time, but also had some serious issues with it -- serious enough to initially relegate Doctorow to a second-tier of contemporary American writers, the sort I was inclined to "attend to the buzz, not the work."

His status evidently changed.

In Billy Bathgate, Doctorow's prose tilts toward the lyrical, a mode that either sways or dissuades, depending. Nowhere is this more evident than in his sex scenes, of which the book has two. I've gone and transcribed them elsewhere for you, but first a word of warning -- no illustrations, photos or gifs are involved, but if words alone can trigger the alarms of your employer's ISP, Doctorow's words will surely do it. NSFW, in other words, but over here I shall keep the discussion of them relatively prim.

Alright -- once again, NSFW  -- but if you feel you must, off you go: scene 1 and scene 2.

To summarize:

In scene 1 our titular hero is an adolescent guttersnipe who, now in the employ of gangster Dutch Schultz, has largesse at his disposal. He throws a party for his neighbourhood peers in a tenement boiler-room. At evening's end, when the others have either left or passed out, he finds that Rebecca, a young prostitute he's employed in the past, appears to view him, for once, as an object of desire. She initiates sexual congress, which concludes to their mutual satisfaction.

In scene 2 the slightly older Billy has Dutch's (significantly older) moll, Drew, to himself. A weird but understandably tense attraction has been growing between Billy and Drew, and in the privacy of New York State's farmland they no longer constrain themselves. They indulge in an initial, brief coupling in the car. Then Drew, completely naked, scampers into the woods, with the also-nude Billy in tow. They descend to swamp-level, where they cover themselves in mud, then walk hand-in-hand "like fairy-tale children [toward] this still pond as black as I had ever seen water to be and of course she waded in and bid me to follow and my God it was fetid, it was warm and scummy, my feet were in wet mats of pond weed, I treaded water to keep my feet from sinking and couldn't crawl back out fast enough but she swam on her back a few yards and then came crawling out on all fours, and she was covered with this invisible slime" -- invisible slime which, in the ensuing sentences, proves itself the Cambrian equivalent of KY Jelly.

Twenty-five years ago, whenever I discussed the book with others who'd read it, I argued that scene 1 persuaded, while scene 2 was an affront to any reader possessed of common sense. There were obvious reasons why Doctorow wrote it, and kept it there -- "fairy-tale children," Milton's Adam and Eve, only primordial and morally suspect from the git-go, a lampoon of Puritan America's own myth of origin, I get it, no mas! -- but Manhattan's brightest editors are paid the big bucks to challenge such self-indulgent impulses. Aren't they?

Twenty-five years later, having consumed or significantly sampled the bulk of Doctorow's work, it's evident this was simply his default mode. He was always pulling this shit. And especially with the sex. So much so that I imagine it amused him to hear of readers like myself getting their noses out of joint on the matter.

Anyway, Billy Bathgate was deposited in my used-book trade-in box, until a prof assigned The Book of Daniel as mandatory reading. It surprises me not at all to see The Book of Daniel mentioned more frequently and with more passion than any other Doctorow novel (including Ragtime) in reminiscences of the man and his work. That book knocked me on my ass, took my breath away -- it's the only Doctorow novel I recommend without reservation. It struck me when I was young and super-impressionable, and it's the sole reason why I've made a point of picking up everything else Doctorow's done.

In the main I tend to favour his essays, which are subtler in their mischief.

He wrote a loving eulogy for Abbie Hoffman, for example, elevating Hoffman's frequently egoistic street theatre to that of the Divinely-ordained biblical prophets. Doctorow's own dialogue with his inherited Abrahamic religion (and its offshoots) was deeply engaged and nuanced -- moreso than Hoffman's ever was. But Doctorow's unfeigned admiration for Hoffman came to mind as I recently perused the work of the West Coast Underground Comix artists.* Crumb, Deitch, Rodriguez -- these fellas and their cohort run the left-wing gamut, for the most part. But first and foremost and above all else, these guys are, to a man, robustly phallocentric in their critiques of what they deem the Dominant Culture.

It struck me, then, that this might well have been the effect Doctorow strove for. We may never know if Doctorow had any facility for stippling or cross-hatching, but he certainly flung around words like so much india ink. And he definitely had a hippie-dude's pornographic sensibility -- sex scenes aren't just scenes, alright? They're theatre, man! You don't like it, look away. Can't do it, can you?

So what if he couldn't be the singular East Coast Underground Comix artist -- he could still be Manhattan Island's ... what -- "bad boy of lit-fic"? That's no fun, there's no "x"! "Lix-fic"? At immediate blush I simply can't recall whether any of his protagonists summoned the wherewithal to issue oral stimulation, but hey -- why not? Let's just say it's so and make it so.
"I could be a randy nutter,
Get my gal to fetch the butter,
If I only drew a frame..."
L'chaim, and God rest, dude. You kept me reading long after I set your peers down for the last time.

*Underground Comix -- I can't decide if this subterranean preoccupation of mine is a curiosity, an obsession or a vice. Decide for yourself, why doncha: here is my on-line resource. The initial launching pad is relatively SFW. After that, proceed with caution.

And the late D.G. Meyers seems never to have troubled himself with Doctorow. He had some pertinent thoughts on sex and the novel, however.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Promissory Notice

I'm pulling together some thoughts on the late E.L. Doctorow. In the meantime, here are some links you might dig.

Douglas Coupland has some thoughts on this business with Greece.

Locke Peterseim brings Sullen, Bitter, Grumpy and Cynical to Pixar's never-ending Inside Out party. Full disclosure: I was a puddle when it came time to say goodbye to Bing-Bong. And I'm completely on-board with Peterseim.
"'Cynical'? Oh, he's just up around the bend!"
"Follow your bliss" was a common bit of advice back in the 80s, when I was avoiding coming-of-age. Here's a fella doing exactly that. Make of it what you will.

And finally, Ahmed Best, the guy who played Jar Jar Binks isn't just a cool interview -- he'll kick your ass, if that's what's needed.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Pan-Am Coverage

Watching CBC Television's evening coverage of the Pan-American Games has been a disappointing experience. What's worse, it's not (just) a matter of their reduced budget allowing for little more than a Handycam and Bixi bike. No, I've had to conclude the fault is almost entirely my own.

"Merde! Shot-put in 20 minutes!"

Canada's public broadcaster has endured sea-changes galore in my lifetime. I can recall the summer of '76 and the Corporation's coverage of the Olympic Games quite well, because my mother allowed me unfettered access to the television so long as I helped her shell peas and trim beans for canning. Back then, CBC devoted its entire broadcast day to the games, delivering the events in real time, and repeating the entire cycle again and again, until the dawn delivered a new roster of events.

Forty years later, evening coverage is limited to two hours, with a single host holding down a desk and clipping through our national accomplishments in the various events. Video coverage rarely exceeds the 90 second mark. The format works best with races, particularly the short ones, but short-changes the longer events rather badly. Just one example I would have enjoyed seeing covered the old-fashioned way: Canada's loss to the Dominican Republic in Women's Volleyball was reduced to three punishing volleys in 88 seconds, providing the viewer with no sense of either team's depth.

Of course, we are encouraged to go on-line, or store the actual event coverage via PVR, or, better yet, install their Pan-Am Games app on our phones. Alas, I opted for the least expensive cable package, so no PVR. As for the app, my phone already behaves like a Cockatoo on a speed jag -- the last thing I want it to do is whistle and chirp at every shot-put result and lawn-bowling victory.

That's just how it goes, when you're a man out of time...


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Joining The Frygian Evangelists


Northrop Frye, coming into focus in 1929.
"There are winners and losers every time intellectual capital changes hands," says Michial Farmer. "The upside of that process is there are always figures from the past waiting to be rediscovered and repurposed for a new generation." By interviewing Claude le Fustec, author of Northrop Frye & American Literature, Farmer joins her in giving the Canadian man of letters a nudge toward contempo rediscovery and repurposing.

As do I -- to the extent I can.

When I was concluding my university studies in the late-80s, Frye's influence in theory circles was already well on the wane, as Derrida and Lacan were in the ascendant. Out of all his texts, only Fools Of Time was required reading -- for a course in tragedy and comedy. And our prof was among the more elderly cohort.

She was a spirited thing, however, entirely hip to the Reader Response revolution that was just beginning to flush out the Prescribed Archetypal approach favored by her peers -- she even required us to keep response journals she would later peruse (and grade -- she was apparently a little hazy on the course of implementation). But any appreciation of Shakespeare pretty much required an appreciation of Frye's appraisal of how the Bard's plays worked. In this, Frye was good at what he did -- thanks to him I finally learned that the Wheel of Fortune was something of magnificent narrative significance, and not merely a gaudy contraption of light and noise spun by the son of Polish immigrants in "America's Game."

But that's pretty much where it ended for me and Frye, until I moved to Toronto. I finished my studies in the University of Toronto, where Frye was still delivering lectures between doctors visits, in the final few months of his life. A classmate encouraged me to drop by, give the old man a listen, but I resisted. Nor is that a cause for regret -- even in his prime, Frye's delivery was a soporific (quibblers should consult the digital record).

So not exactly an ideal launching point for an adult history spent wrestling with the man's ideas. But when I began working at the book store, a co-worker lit up when I self-identified as Mennonite (because where else would I start?). Said he: "Hey, that's cool -- I'm Catholic!" Another less-than-promising launching point, perhaps, but after I confessed to some ambivalence toward my religious heritage, my new friend admitted to similar misgivings about his, but said Frye's work reinvigorated his relationship to the religion his ancestors had bequeathed him. "You have got to read him, man. Seriously -- there is no going forward without Frye."

This struck me as odd -- I didn't know much about Frye the man, but I was certainly aware he self-identified as Protestant. If his theoretical POV had a catholic, if not Catholic, embrace, perhaps he was worth a closer look. So I committed my Sunday mornings to reading the copy of The Great Code I'd purloined from my father's library. Reading prompted note-taking, which prompted further, closer reading, which eventually prompted me to self-identify (when tipsy) as a Frygian Mennonite.

Prof. Farmer lauds Prof. Frye as "one of the most important writers on the relationship between Christianity and literature" -- a not-bad summary, but somewhat wide of the insight that seems to have taken possession of Frye's POV. One-sentence summaries are perilous, of course -- I can't do it, myself. But one insight Frye impressed me with is a sense of the immeasurably deep penetration the Christian narrative has achieved in Western consciousness. The comic cosmic narrative the New Testament writers espoused is, after 2000 years, inescapable -- at this point, western narratives embody or react negatively to this narrative, or work along the spectrum of these extremes. That's quite the "relationship," to be sure -- and Farmer and le Fustec do a terrific job of unpacking some of this as played out in US literature.

As they do touching on other elements in Frye's critical acumen. Looking over my notes, I see a heady variety of referential touchstones, sure to please listeners (such as myself) keen to play the egghead: Heidegger, Bultmann, Barthe -- "Rilke's contempt for allegory!" earns an especially enthusiastic emphasis from my ballpoint pen. And Derrida, of course -- I particularly dug the comparison of Derrida's late-in-life theory with Frye's earliest. It's just a suggestion on the part of Farmer and le Fustec, and a brief one at that, but it almost seems like Derrida's "end-point" is the rough equivalent of where Frye began.

Which, for you youngsters who've had enough of egocentric Reader Responses and Trigger Warnings for everything from The Great Gatsby to Bear In The Big Blue House, is precisely what recommends The Old Duff With The Odd Coif to your parched and starving brains. Take and read, kids; take and read.

"Read Blake, or go to Hell" -- Northrop Frye
Links: Michial Farmer's interview with Claude le Fustec podcastNorthrop Frye & American Literature, by Claude le Fustec, U of T Press page. Personally recommended: The Educated Imagination is probably the best place to start with Frye -- his public radio lectures are a compact and breezy intro to what he was about. If it's the religious impulse you're puzzlin' over, by all means dig into The Great Code and Words With Power. Farmer and le Fustec refer to Frye's notebooks, but, man, that's some heavy (and at times discomfitingly prurient) reading. Better to tuck into Marshall McLuhan & Northrop Frye: Apocalypse & Alchemy, by B.W. Powe (U of T Press page). McLuhan and Frye were contemporaries, of course, but Powe successfully portrays them as ideological and theoretical antagonists -- the Catholic vs. the Protestant, for starters -- who used each other to sharpen and hone their particular insights into the human condition and human potential. Powe's a super-sharp purveyor of their era, and a judicious parser of their various interactions. He's energetic and readable, and his book is highly recommended. And I just read Alec Scott's survey today -- you might like it, also.

Friday, July 03, 2015

El Capitan, The Easy Way

It takes most climbers three-to-five days to climb the impressive face of El Capitan -- an activity that is not for the faint-of-heart. Now Google's new Vertical Street-View allows us faint-hearted non-climbers a chance to explore El Capitan from the comfort of ... well, wherever you happen to be reading this.

Nuthin' to it...

The other easy way.
Anyhow, thanks for indulging. I'm hoping to get back to original(ish) content next week.