11/28/09

I am not a serious man.

Seeing a movie by oneself is always, for me, magical. I regard it as a religious observance, and I guess doubly so when the movie is so religiously themed, as was The Coen Brother’s latest film, A Serious Man.

The Book of Job is my favorite book in the bible, and possibly my favorite piece of literature in general. The film is said to be a loose adaptation. I think so. Inexplicable things happen, characters have weird motives and there are unexplained plot lines. The Jewish God and his actions can’t be explained, not by Rabbi’s, not by weird Yiddish folklore, tornados, or anything else thrown at us. The movie never mentions Job. Not once. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Coen brothers try to claim in interviews they’ve never read it.

I want to believe in God. Save a brief period in high school when Atheism was bad ass, I always have. But God seems so paternalistic, so made up, simple, imaginary and illusive that believing in him seems to me as arbitrary as believing in … I don’t know, something similarly unprovable. People in other universes. Pragmatically though, a world governed by some other agent, where unrelated events have meaning and hint at deep truths about the course that your life should take, or that you have your own personal destiny, this seems to me better than the world as a cold, dead place. And I know it’s asking a lot, and I’m not trying to be the female version of Job here, but does she/he have to be so mysterious? Couldn’t we catch a glimpse? Wouldn’t it make the game more fun?

I practice buddhism, poorly. I once meditated for ten days, and in buddhist meditation, the idea is to think of nothing, or the breathe, which is like nothing, but secretly I wanted to think of God. I wanted him/her to give me a brand new insight, something I didn’t already know or hadn’t already felt intuitively before, and it didn’t happen. If when I sat down to meditate, I was actually trying to think of “God” instead of nothing, would it be any less frustrating? I wondered if the things I was supposed to realize during those ten days never came to me because I already know them, and always have. It’s a little egotistical, maybe, but the thought persists.

So I saw the movie by myself, and it was sort of wicked, because I have friends that will want to see it, and I know that later they’ll all go without me, and I’ll be sad and they’ll be sad, but I needed to be by myself. The indie theater in my neighborhood is right after a bridge that goes over a river. I rode my bike there and back and I was all by myself, and on the way home I thought of these words, and now I’m typing them out, and thanks to the Coen brothers, I’m a secret Jew. The end.

11/18/09

The Curious Case of… who the Fuck is Gogol?

I think I may have just read the most baffling short story of all time: The Nose, by Nikolai Gogol. Leave it to those damn 19th century Russian authors to name all of their characters “Ivan” and make them do incomprehensible things, completely baffling my otherwise sensible Wednesday afternoon.

It happened thusly. I had some time on my hands and enough YouTube in my head to melt my eyeballs. I did a google search for “top short stories of all time” or something equally audacious, and came across this link, a list compiled by some other nutbar european author I’ve never heard of. I expected “The Dead” by James Joyce to be number one, but no, Alison Nutbar MacLeod values this Nose story above all others. And so I read it.

I can’t even begin to guess how my workshop would approach this story, (assuming we could somehow get around the weirdness of it taking place in Russia in the 1850′s, with all the dramatic, flowerly language that goes along with it).

Here is what happens as I understand it: A barber named Ivan finds a nose in a breadroll his mean, nasty wife has made, and he recognizes it as belonging to Kovalev, one of his clients. Ivan believes himself to be a wicked drunk and assumes responsibility for the nose, however baffling, and tries to abscond with the evidence. A police catches him trying to throw the nose over the bridge and he is apprehended.

Cut to Kovalev waking up and discovering that he is missing a nose. "To his unbounded astonishment, there was only a flat patch on his face where the nose should have been!" !!!! indeed!

So we’ve been given two different perspectives at this point, implying an omniscient 3rd person narrator, until all of a sudden the narrator comes in all “allow me to tell you what Kovalev’s job is.” What the fuck is this? An omniscient first person narrator? Who does this Gogol think he is?

Since I recently had the audacity to turn in a story to workshop last week featuring multiple perspectives with a knowing, metafictional narrator (met with, as always, mixed reviews), I automatically feel a kinship with this insane Gogol person and press on.

Kovalev is distraught and goes running around St Petersburg with a hankerchief over his face. He attempts to place an ad in the paper for the missing nose and the paper is all “we don’t want to ruin our reputation.” Fair enough I guess. He then discovers a man who he somehow instantly recognizes as the lost nose itself. He follows him into a mansion and explains that the man is his nose, and that he needs his nose back because he’s kind of a big deal. But this other man doesn’t believe that he is Kovalev’s nose, and thusly escapes. Now, there’s all sorts of Russian shit going on that I don’t understand. Kovalev calls himself “Major” and is a “collegiate assessor,” which I think means that he has a pretty good job, but not the greatest job, and so he can’t shut up about it (kind of like upper middle class people who buy boats they can’t afford). The man who he thinks is his nose is a “State Councilor.” I can only conclude that this is better than a collegiate assessor.

Also this bit helps: “My dear sir, you speak in error,” was its reply. “I am just myself — myself separately. And in any case there cannot ever have existed a close relation between us, for, judging from the buttons of your undress uniform, your service is being performed in another department than my own.” And the Nose definitely turned away.

Why Kovalev thinks this man is his nose is anybody’s guess, but we know at least that the narrator agrees completely. The man is also his nose.

Kovalev has all these lady friends and he mentions them often, but in relation to their mothers, which is either some weird Russian custom of the time, or it is in fact very strange and utterly significant. Further scholarship is definitely required and it’s a damn shame I’m not likely to ever get around to it. Kovalev is convinced that it’s one of these mothers that has cast some sort of weird witch spell on him because he doesn’t want to marry her daughter, so he writes her and says so, and she’s like “I didn’t cast a spell on you and I still totally want you to marry my daughter” and from this correspondence Kovalev swiftly concludes "She, at least, is not guilty. Oh, certainly not! No one who had committed such a crime could write such a letter.” In a story like this, we have to just kind of rely on our protagonists reasoning, because injecting our own simply will not do.

So the cop who caught the barber trying to throw away the nose brings him to Kovalev’s house all “I found your nose. This barber was trying to throw it away, but oh no.”

Oh, but read this, it’s great. First Kovalev is psyched about getting his nose back, then… "But nothing lasts long in this world. Even joy grows less lively the next moment. And a moment later, again, it weakens further. And at last it reemerges insensibly with the normal mood, even as the ripple from a pebble's impact becomes reemerged with the smooth surface of the water at large. So Kovalev relapsed into thought again. For by now he had realized that even yet the affair was not wholly ended, seeing that, though retrieved, the nose needed to be re-stuck. “What if it should fail so to stick!”

I know, right?

So the nose doesn’t stick, and he calls in a doctor, and the doctor very knowingly, cryptically says that he could re-attach the nose, but implies that if he did, something really bad would happen. What? I don’t know, something really bad. He suggests he keeps the nose in a jar or try to sell it, and in fact, the doctor would love to have it if Kovalev doesn’t want it anymore. What the hell kind of a doctor is this?

So he lives for a few weeks without a nose, and it becomes the stuff of legend around town, and then bam, one day, the nose returns to his face, and everybody’s happy again. The mother’s all “you should marry my daughter now” and he’s like “no I’m still not going to do that.”

To conclude, I have to leave you with Gogol’s last couple of paragraphs because paraphrasing just will not do it justice. I warn you that this is the end of the story, so if you plan on reading it yourself you should go do that first. I myself despise having the ending of a story ruined for me. But If my summary suffices, here it is:

To think of such an affair happening in this our vast empire's northern capital! Yet general opinion decided that the affair had about it much of the improbable. Leaving out of the question the nose's strange, unnatural removal, and its subsequent appearance as a State Councilor., how came Kovalev not to know that one ought not to advertise for a nose through a newspaper? Not that I say this because I consider newspaper charges for announcements excessive. No, that is nothing, and I do not belong to the number of the mean. I say it because such a proceeding would have been gauche, derogatory, not the thing. And how came the nose into the baked roll? And what of Ivan Yakovlevitch? Oh, I cannot understand these points — absolutely I cannot. And the strangest, most unintelligible fact of all is that authors actually can select such occurrences for their subject! I confess this too to pass my comprehension, to — — But no; I will say just that I do not understand it. In the first place, a course of the sort never benefits the country. And in the second place — in the second place, a course of the sort never benefits anything at all. I cannot divine the use of it.

Yet, even considering these things; even conceding this, that, and the other (for where are not incongruities found at times?) there may have, after all, been something in the affair. For no matter what folk say to the contrary, such affairs do happen in this world — rarely of course, yet none the less really.

How have I never heard of Gogol or this story? I can only conclude that my education has profoundly failed me. It’s just one of those things. I don’t know what it means. Alison Nutbar MacLeod suggests the nose stands for a penis, but all female authors think that all things stand for penises. All I know is, sometimes you read something and you know that you’ll never be quite the same again – just the slightest shift in my perceptions of the world and literature in general, but certainly worth noting. Someone, please read this and tell me I didn’t dream or imagine it.
“The devil only knows what this vileness means!” he muttered. “If even there had been something to take the nose's place! But, as it is, there's nothing there at all.”

11/10/09

There’s really only one thing to talk about.

Things MFA graduate students are good at:

  1. Writing perfectly crafted text messages to one another, a symphony of mystery, intrigue, flirtation mixed with aloof detachment dosed out in perfect proportion to the situation.  We are all lyrical wizards, and it’s frightening sometimes, they way we misuse our power.  What I’m trying to say is that Kristen G*****n is a witch.
  2. Any variety of parlor games that require extensive lying and trickery.  Balderdash.  My Dad is… (either A- a successful magician.  B- a real estate agent turned puppeteer in these hard financial times.)
  3. Selecting songs from jukeboxes that don’t just sound good, but also really speak to the time and situation.
  4. Crossing out every adverb I ever audaciously put in a story, helpfully.

So, Nanowrimo, or National Novel Writing Month.  The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.  That’s about 1700 words a day.  I’m behind schedule but thats what the end of the month is for – tireless cramming.  Here’s my first paragraph.

Chapter 1: The Guest Poet Spoke of Birch Trees…

The guest poet spoke of birch trees, something about the white bark being like his mothers ghost, only less interesting.  He stopped (for effect, they thought) clutched his chest, gasped at the air like the tree itself was lodged in his throat, and finally, the whole lot of him cascaded to the ground.  The podium tipped forward and an older woman in the front row caught it gracefully as it fell into her lap.    This caused the chord to come unplugged and during the surge, the oomph that punctuated this awful poets collapse, the woman silently righted the podium again.

Incidentally, the poet is dead.  Later some other characters will conspire to kill a dog.  A girl locks herself up in her room and does drugs continually for days and days.  Magic is attempted and failed.  In all seriousness, writing a novel in one month is a meditative and beautiful process and I recommend it to everyone.  It’s not too late to start now, but almost.  Visit Nanowrimo and be my friend. (user name: Mollykills)

11/1/09

Post Halloween Slasher Lit

My graduate studies in creative writing leaves me no time to write blog updates.  Creatively.

Let us not dwell on the absurdity of that statement and instead move on to other unpleasantries.  I’m beginning to see why I’m the only person I know who posts their stories on the Internet.  It’s because we’re supposed to come to the conclusion that are stories suck at worst, and are never ever finished at best.  Still.  I continue to think it’s a good idea.

I work-shopped a piece a couple of weeks ago, for the second time,  called You Shut Up, Please. (Reviews of the title = mixed.  I like it.)  Revision is hellish and interesting.  Kevin Canty, or KC, as he cryptically addresses himself in his notes to me, tells me that revision is important.  He had the audacity to suggest that one should give up the idea that they’re going to write a perfect story the first time around, that you need to learn how to let go and let God when it comes to your brilliant sentences/ideas.  If I knew how to let God write my stories I would have “let go” a long time ago, but that’s a point for another time.  He said my 23 page story should be cut down by 6 pages.  6 pages!  That’s like asking me to gouge out one of my cat’s eyes, because hey, who really needs more than one eye.  (It’s probably not really like that.)

I tried, KC.  I tried so, so, hard, and it hurt.  Well, sort of.  Some sentences are easy to part with.  Others was like plucking out eyelashes individually with a pair of tweezers.  I managed to get 2 1/2 pages out.  Do you want to see what I cut?

Why would you want to see what I cut?  The whole point is that this shit doesn’t need to be read.  Whatever.  I declare November 1st opposite day.  So here is what’s left on the cutting room floor.  My favorite is number 19.  ”Incidentally, they played a great set.”  Oh, incidentally, eh?  Ha.  I crack myself up.  Number 20 is completely racist out of context, and to be fair, also in context.  37.  ”It’s just supposed to be a metaphor.”  Oh Molly.  It’s show, not tell.  I don’t care what your verbose, Holden Caulfield wannabe first person narrator thinks.  When you read the entire list, your brain tries to turn it into a story, but this story is rambling, makes no sense, and is apropos to nothing.  These are all good arguments for the revision process.

  1. the big surprise
  2. She wanted to socialize me, so when she met interesting people doing grown up things, she made a point of dragging me along with her.
  3. I in turn didn’t know until much later that she wasn’t just a guest at the party, but that she lived there, and was kind of a big deal.
  4. I let myself become her social works product, which now in retrospect was probably a mistake.
  5. She flurries around the house, putting everything methodically into place.  She puts her mittens in her coat pocket, the coat on the rack, and her many school supplies back in their designated places on the bookshelf.  I follow her everywhere.  She sets her purse on the chair next to the coffee table, deliberately askew.  It’s a labored, practiced casualness.
  6. She stands behind me and stares at the blank canvas, save a few leading lines that mark the beginning of more nightmares.
  7. She puts her hand on my shoulder, and it’s more like a father son thing than a gesture between lovers.
  8. She wants things to either look like the thing, or not at all.  It’s true that I can never seem to accomplish either state.
  9. Twenty minutes later, when my body is attacking me from the inside with hunger, she’s finally ready to go.

10. I note my cynicism, but I’m too tired to correct it.

11. My ass hurts from sitting in the same swivel chair all day.

12. She lives in the world of bad films and TV sitcoms, and since the networks rarely make them anymore, I don’t think she understands that things have changed.

13. My tongue feels dipped in ventilation dust, securely wrapped in gauze bandages then dipped in plaster.

14. He exhales with the force of ten thousand elephants.

15. Birds come, and then they go.

16. I don’t paint real people, but stick figures.  The rest is as realistic as Rembrandt.

17. , …the first moment of contact, the fire that burns inside of us when something extraordinary is about to happen.

18. …he robbed it of all its dirty manliness…

19. Incidentally, they played a great set.

20. I’m scared that when I listen to the message he’ll try to offer me a bride price or dowry or whatever it is they do.

21. On any other day I would take great pleasure in prolonging his meek fear of asking for anything directly.  If the Christmas spirit of giving hadn’t inexplicably struck me, I’d have let him hem and haw for hours before offering him a ride, just to teach him some kind of lesson.

22. Adam is a terrible giver of directions – he mumbles things about left turns and one-way boulevards – but all I need is the name of the subdivision – “Harvest Springs” – and the name of his street, “Sycamore Grove.”

23. I recognize the house when we pull up – it’s made special by the gigantic red door, which without fail means at least a four-dollar tip. Nothing, not the size of the house, the cars in the parking lot, or the food order itself is more indicative of tip in this town than the homeowner’s willingness to shed extra money on a big ass door. I even remember Adam’s dad – a shorter, nebbish man in dressing socks, cordless phone wedged on his shoulder and a yelping, little white dog at his feet.  When was it, two, three years ago?

24. “I don’t understand,” Adam keeps repeating.

25. It never ceases to amaze me how the wealthy always manage a fully stocked bar – every bottle, three quarters full. I wonder if someone like the milkman comes around once a month, topping the bottles off.  Maybe successful people don’t drink, but only sip.

26. There’s Crystal, of course. There’s the Johnny Walker Blue, and me, thirty years old and certain I’ve never sipped Alcohol so expensive before.  More than anything…

27. I want to cheer him up.

28. Adam takes a sip of his father’s Scotch, the stuff that sells for something like twenty dollars a glass at the kind of bars Anuj and Crystal will soon be frequenting.

29. I grope blindly for some positive spin on the situation, when…

30. Adam interrupts me.  I don’t think he hears a word of what I’ve actually said, of what I’m trying to say.

31. I’ve always wanted to be an excellent judge of unconscious tells, the hidden contradiction between our actions and our true intentions, but the truth is, I never have been. I think I’m too self-centered to remember to look closely at people’s faces, to gauge a twitch of an eyebrow or panicked flash in the eyes. But this time, despite extreme drunkenness even…

32. He giggles a little bit, and starts staggering away with uncoordinated exaggeration.

33. …he sort of whispers, except it’s a drunk whisper that sounds more like loud, airy shouting.

34. I see red.

35. …with the same level of clumsiness…

36.  - as if he thinks it really warrants being said –

37.  It’s just supposed to be a metaphor.