3.31.2014

The Splintering Delirium of Language: On Lola Lafia's Debut Novel, "The Crack"

Lola Lafia is now 12. This is her incredible first novel. Buy it here >


Language has an all-too-canny ability to make sense of the world, to organize it into categories and put everything in its proper place, to make order of the inchoate chaos that looms everywhere and threatens to tear at the fabric of knowledge and being itself (whatever that is). I'm a male; she's a female; this is work, that play; this is story, that is a short story; that is an author and that is a character; and so on and so forth. 

But language can undo just as it does. It can scramble, rearrange, reorganize, disorient. It can forge cracks. While we may often think of language as the tool of answering, it can be engaged to render everything a question. Think of Beckett and Joyce. And of Lola Lafia's debut novel, The Crack, written when she was 11. 

I have to admit, part of me had no desire to mention her age. After all, what matter who's speaking? (Beckett via Foucault). But, frankly, I am blown away by her. But it's more than that. This is a very special book that articulates the exquisite madness of childhood and its beautifully demented will to wonder about everything and anything, to take it all on without guile. And I'm pretty sure this could only come from someone living through it.  

The book opens with a crack: The crack in the ceiling must have been staring at me for a while. But there are cracks everywhere, blissfully introduced at every turn. At first, we seem to be in a young boy's room, although his gender is irrelevant. This is Emil. This quickly becomes the story of Lee Cot, "western cowboy," who lived in a very unusual though typical, fantasized world: there was the good, and the evil. Yes, it was classic for a 'magic' world. But this era of magic was a bit different from all the others.

Indeed it is. For not long after meeting Lee Cot and his effort to put a question mark atop the Mountain of Life before Sir E. Vil puts a period, we meet Mr. Bombompsky who always wore purple satin Indian slippers to not match (or rather in contrast) with his black suit coat with yellow hexagonal shaped buttons. This Mr. Bombompsky is apparently the one writing the story of Lee Cot and, presumably, Emil. But then who's writing about Mr. Bombompsky? Maybe that's Emil. 

It doesn't really matter as this Bombompsky is just an awesome, odd character who, in one of the great scenes in literature, cooks his characters into being. Mr. Bombompsky spent hours in his kitchen, cooking up delicious meals and, every time he was working on a book, he tried to cook the characters as well. He tires to create the character through cooking...  And what food, you ask, makes Lee Cot? He felt spices from Morocco, nuts, chili with cheese, pickles (of course), prosciutto, and adventurous white wine. Lee Cot would not be shy to new things....

As Mr. Bombompsky begins cooking, we turn the page to find another character who's reading about Mr. Bombompsky writing about Lee Cot: Ida Cremchanskivich's stomach rumbled. Ida, who is from Russia but lives in New York, is trying to fly home from Europe but her trip keeps getting deferred until, finally, she ends up flying the long way around to get "home” (a Derridean turn if ever there was). Along the way, she experiences a breadth and wealth of existential questions.  At one point on the plane, a kid has a tantrum, at the end of which we find this passage:  

But there that moment lay, in the graveyard of dead moments, of dead history, of the unconscious forgotten stories of the world, of humans, animals, science, all from the big bang, even the unknown from before, to now, to the future forever....All the forgotten moments; forgotten by most, lay there, unraveling the ribbon of time, of the infinite moments....The music faded, the moments faded, into a mist, but a mist of color, and not forgotten mist, not waste away mist, just put aside mist: mist to think about later. With that thought in mind, Ida opened the book.

Four main characters, then. But these characters are as much authors as they are characters, writing themselves and each other into existence. This book is not a seamless fabric of characters connected by plot, by cause and effect, by personal motivations and circumstances. No, this book, as the title tells us, is cracked. 

There are fractured lines between the characters: it's not as simple as one is the author and the other a character. Their relationships are anything but seamless. 

There are cracks in the so-called plot: planes go astray and, more often, streams of thought. As one story picks up speed, the book shifts focus. 

There are tears in the structure of children's stories. Lee Cot is an odd, odd bird who never really knows quite what's happening or what he's capable of (and what he is capable of turns out to be as surprising and odd to him as it is to us: He, his body, whomever he was seemed to be able to move through different forms of energy and matter through time.). But, more poignantly, the very structure of good versus evil is superseded by the glorious conjunction of good and evil. Life is a balance: a scale with one side holding the utopian qualities of life, the other the dystopian. And that in itself is perfect.  

There are cracks in the relationship between language and person, story and reality. At one point, Ida is in a bookstore and picks up a book entitled, "Ida." As she reads, she takes defensive offense at the misrepresentations of her life. And yet she finds herself crying. Why do you have to be so wrong, though so right? we read. 

Everywhere, cracks. But these are not holes or gaps. They are openings that produce questions and possibilities that throw us back on ourselves to wonder what we're reading, what we expect a story to be, have us wonder who's writing whom, just as it enraptures us with exquisite characters and finely tuned details of exquisite existence. This book is itself a question mark on the mountain of literature, the mountain of language, the mountain of life.

3.25.2014

Breaking Bad Take One: The Chemistry of Story

Like all great things, Breaking Bad is multiple, offering many ways in and through. I offer a series of readings. Take one.


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Most serial television shows have characters that stay the same while they navigate more or less different situations (usually, the situations are limited in variety). Think about it for a minute. The whole premise of "Friends" is that Monica is Monica, Ross is Ross, Joey is Joey; on "Seinfeld," Kramer is Kramer, George is George, Elaine is Elaine. If these characters were to transform, the very grammar of the show would collapse. 

This is true of more sophisticated television such as, say, "The Wire." Jimmy is Jimmy, Bunk is Bunk, Avon is Avon. Sure, McNulty goes sober for a while but it's not the defining element of the show. And, really, it's still just Jimmy being Jimmy.

"Breaking Bad" is a horse of another color. The very premise of the show is Walt's change. It's not just a shift from good to bad. His change is as unknown to him as it is to us — and as multifarious and complex. This is not a matter of moving to the dark side. Walt's changes are all hiccups, starting and stopping, veering and spiraling. We see him contend with limits, none of us quite sure where he's going next. This shifts the very grammar of serial tv, the distribution of sympathy, the play of confirmation and revelation.

The show in fact declares this to us in the very opening scene as we see Walt lecturing to his class. Technically, chemistry is the study of matter, he tells his class, but I prefer to see it as the study of change. And this, alas, is the very grammar of the show. Rather than seeing people as static matter, it sees people are endlessly interacting and changing. We're all just chemicals interacting with other chemicals — morphing, exploding, bonding, rejecting.

But it's not that things change any old way. This is not the traditional soap opera in which radical discontinuity is the norm. No, here bodies as matter have properties. Walt might change but his change is immanent to him and his circumstances; this is why we see those flashback scenes of him in grad school — confident, handsome, sexy. Or consider Jessie. He has a distinctive property of playing the child —with his parents, with Walt, with Mike, even with Skyler (These are delicious green beans, Mrs. White) and Fring (He sees something in me). But the form this takes differs depending on with whom he's interacting: he remains a child but he is a different child with each of these people.

As a result, the show has a very strange play of sympathies. Walt, clearly the center, is not stable. We come to know him, appreciate him, become frustrated with him. But we never identify with him. How can we when he keeps changing? Tony Soprano might be ethically challenged, as it were, but the show works hard for us to feel for him and feel with him.  "Breaking Bad" does no such thing. We don't identify with any one character. We don't root for Walt; we witness Walt as we witness chemical reaction in a lab or even in nature. 

"Breaking Bad" refuses us the humanistic approach of identification. We don't see ourselves in these characters. With "Friends," people could say, I'm a Rachel; you're such a Monica! But that just doesn't work on "Breaking Bad." The show demands we be watchers, demands we be empirical. As viewers, we become chemists, watching and assessing the terms of these bodies interacting, trying to understand their laws but mostly just tracking its happening.

Sometimes, we are made to focus on details that confuse and confound us. Indeed, the show repeatedly zooms in on the minor mechanics of things such that all we see is the swirl of bodies, not the plot per se. Often, the literal perspective of the show is unclear and too close for comfort.

But then it pans back and we see how this fits into the greater set of bodies and their interactions. We come to see the floating eyeball as part of an elaborate reaction between Walt, Jessie, Jane, and Jane's father. We see the skateboard's wheels as the effect of the Heisenberg principle, as it were. Sometimes, we see the effects — the episodes beginning with the ending — and then are asked to see how they happened, the set of conditions that created this event.

Now, all story is necessarily chemistry. A story is, after all, the way bodies interact with each other and the new conditions this creates. But most serial television insists on recreating the same conditions and results every time, as if confirming the initial experiment ad nauseum.

"Breaking Bad" takes another approach as it relentlessly changes the conditions and hence the effects — and hence the story. This is television as a lab — yes, a lab — its seriality, a relentless experimentation.

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3.16.2014

Good Grief


It all happened very quickly, five months from initial symptom and diagnosis to death. She was 49 when she died, the mother of three. She was relatively young, vital, luminous with a smile so big and sincere and radiant, it would stop you in your tracks.

She was my sister so, well, I'd known her my entire life. When we were young, she, my brother, and I shared a room on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In all of my memories of that time, I slept in her bed, eating dried soy nuts and farting as the three of us whispered in the dark.

The entire event of her dying remains surreal. She was transformed right before my eyes, withering so swiftly, mercilessly, horribly.  It's been over four months since she died and every day, at various junctures, I see her in this or that state. I am haunted by her death, by her dying, this spectral presence of pain, all too palpable, infiltrating my body until I am hysterical, devastated, eviscerated. 

The event of her dying was, needless to say, overwhelming. But it was a more or less discrete event. Of course there was a funeral, a big affair with friends of hers from all parts of her life flocking in from all corners of the country. I had condolences, sincere and touching beyond belief, coming out the yin yang. Friends of mine from my childhood, people I hadn't seen in decades, people I didn't even know knew of her sickness, showed up and showed me a love I simply don't know in my day to day life. Some of my present friends, meanwhile, disappeared in the face of the misery, it all too much and too inconvenient. Death has a way of redistributing patterns and expectations of intimacy.

And then the funeral was over, everyone went home, and a new and much more awful reality settled in: the absence of my beautiful, brilliant, radiant sister. Loss is an event; it happens. People show up, call, send emails and letters. As she was becoming sicker and sicker, we all wished her to die — for her own good, for everyone's so-called good. The dying was so unbearable that we wished for the event of death. And then it comes like the apogee in the narrative and, for a moment, we assume it to be a relief, a finale, a resolve.

But then I'm home and trying to live my life and she's not there. With some frequency, I go to call her. And part of me thinks, Well, I can't call her now as she's not there. So I'll call later before I remember, before I feel in my toes, in my very cells, that she'll never be there. At which point, I begin to scream into the abyss.

This is not loss; this is absence. This is something more terrible in its infinitude. It's not an event that begins and ends; it just keeps going. It's what we're told hell is: suffering without end, without remedy, without recourse, suffering unto infinity. Not only can't I see her, speak with her, laugh with her. I can never, ever see her, speak with her, laugh with her. And — and! — it's not just that she's gone; it's that she suffered horribly and, with her passing, there was no reprieve or reckoning. She suffered then vanished. Just bad and more bad, infinitely and without remedy.

And then someone said something to me that shifted this perspective. Ok, it wasn't just someone: it was my shrink. I told him I was having trouble sleeping and, lying in bed, I kept seeing my sister on her deathbed, little and weak and sad and confused. He told me that I should neither indulge these images with weeping nor avoid them with diversion. Rather, I should lean into them with love. I should feel the fullness of my love for her and her love for me. Being present to her life is a gift, he told me, just as being present for her death was a gift. Not everyone gets to experience it. In his eyes, it was an honor that I could be there, talk to her, help her, know her through this movement from vitality to death.

Now, every time I feel the abject horror of her absence, when I come face to face with the sublimity of infinite loss, I stop and turn into the fullness that, seemingly just out of reach, is in fact always there. Rather than absence, I feel the abundance of her and all that she was and remains. Rather than loss, I summon the gift of having known her, loved her, of having been loved by her, of having had the privilege of helping her die.

I’ll be honest and say it's hard not to feel a gaping hole in my life where she once was. It’s hard not to freak out, scream, pull my few remaining hairs out in the insane hope that she’ll come back. But the fact is she is still here, albeit in a different form, filling me with love and memory and her very distinct way of going in this life. She lives on in a very real way, even if intangible.

It's all too easy to feel her now, to experience her now, as absent. But, with work, I can transform that experience into her abundant presence in my life.

Both of these feelings are grief. Grief is not univocal. It is not just sadness; it is not just the pain of loss. Grieving is a process, as perpetual as it is in flux. There’s no way of making sense of death, no way someone’s disappearance from the planet can be understood. You don’t move past it, ever. No, you reckon that loss, that absence, until your own death. Which is to say, you grieve until you die. Grieving is an active, ongoing process of negotiating this sublime torrent of feeling.

The question is how you turn into, turn with, this infinite, sublime strangeness. Bad grief lives through infinite loss, lives with absence, as you walk around with a gaping hole of darkness. Good grief transforms the sublime horror of absence into radiant presence as you lean into the invisible yet palpable love of your lost love and live through, live with, its abundance.

3.09.2014

The Anxiety of Web Plasticity, or Who Cares What's Yours?



A friend of mine, an artist, recently had a picture from her Facebook profile end up on a stranger's wall. She was not just outraged; she felt violated. 

What surprised me was her swift and righteous indignation. She didn't question her own reaction, didn't wonder if perhaps such (re)use of an image was fundamentally part and parcel of participating in the world, not to mention of participating in the world of the web, not to mention the world of the social network — you know, those sites with the big old "share" button next to everything. It was her image, had her face, and so any unsanctioned use of it was a violation. As for my suggestion that perhaps the way of images is to circulate and what was the big deal? Well, I was clearly just an asshole. 

The interweb is plastic; it oozes and flows. When you plant a stake in it — words, images, information — it doesn't take. Nothing stands still; it all moves. In fact, everywhere you go on the web, there's that invitation to "share" — email, post, pin, or tweet. And this is to neglect right click or control-shift-4. The very grammar of the web, of the digital itself, is the circulation of content.  

You, whoever you are, can't keep it still, can't stop your things from bleeding into the world. You are plastic, as well. 

Of course, this is not just the way of the web. It's the way of existence. As a kid, we'd do this insane thing in which we'd watch movies and then quote the movies to each other! Without proper citation! The words of Cheech, Chong, John Belushi, Eric Idle would flow from our lips without the slightest consideration. We knew these words weren't ours. But still, radical heathens that we were, we repeated them.

Sometimes, these words — these phrases — would become incorporated into our daily shtick: Whatchyou talkin' about, Willis? At some point, we weren't quoting at all; we were claiming these words as part of our own style. But we wouldn't become possessive of them. We knew they were never ours to begin with. They were just there for us, gifts that circulated through us. 

Such is the way of the world. We are not isolated, self-contained units. Our very being is run through with words, images, concepts, modes of being that come from elsewhere. We are intertextual (pace Derrida). What makes you you and me me, if there is such a thing as you and me, is the particular configuration of all these things. We are productive cogs within the relentless flow of all things, a point of inflection within the great cosmic teem (pace Deleuze).

The web accelerates and magnifies this movement. And, no doubt, it can be disconcerting. I found a site recently that took an article of mine, along with my name, and called me a "contributor" to the site — a site I'd never heard of. I realize that's not much of an affront. And while it could piss my shit off that they're trying to make money leveraging my content, well, that is the revenue model of every social network. Facebook and Twitter make their money using our content. They write code; we supply the content; they generate the revenue. They don't "cite" me or you or anyone. They just use it as they will to get rich rich rich.

Here's a better, hilarious, and beautiful example. A good friend of mine curates an exquisite site called Synaptic Stimuli. At one point, he put these large scale words at the top of the page followed by some images, many of which are from the artist, Andy Goldsworthy. Here, look:


Well, if you Google those words, you'll find them all over the web such as on Goodreads and attributed to....Andy Goldsworthy. He didn't say those words; Michael Chichi, my friend, wrote those words. But now the world of the web believes they belong to Goldsworthy. "Belong," in this context, is hilarious.



The more plastic the web becomes, the more we cling to these banal anachronisms such as attribution. We must say who said this! We must state the name of the artist who created this! Why? Who the fuck cares? If there's a matter of money — if someone is selling work you'd otherwise be selling — that's a shitty thing to do and, alas, illegal. There are actions you can take.

More often, however, it's not a matter of financial theft but of existential impropriety. That's mine! That's my image! Those are my words! Or else we want to make sure the right words come from the right mouth. The idea that my friend, Michael Chichi, can write something and now the world believes Andy Goldsworthy said them seems somehow, well, wrong — to both parties. 

But, to me, such so-called misattribution is art in and of itself, a creative act of scrambling the world, dj'ing the cosmos.  I think of the end of Borges' achingly brilliant, punch-myself-in-the-face funny story, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote":


Menard (perhaps without wanting to) has enriched, by means of a new technique, the halting and rudimentary art of reading: this new technique is that of the deliberate anachronism and the erroneous attribution. This technique, whose applications are infinite, prompts us to go through the Odyssey as if it were posterior to the Aeneid and the book Le jardin du Centaure of Madame Henri Bachelier as if it were by Madame Henri Bachelier. This technique fills the most placid works with adventure. To attribute the Imitatio Christi to Louis Ferdinand Céline or to James Joyce, is this not a sufficient renovation of its tenuous spiritual indications?

There is no doubt an emergent ethics of how to appropriate someone else's image. And there are no doubt plenty of examples of fucked up things that people do. But, fundamentally, such is the way of the world and certainly such is the way of the digital network. Things move, fast. Identities blur so that, for a while, my words are coming out of your mouth.

3.04.2014

Life Out of Whack, or How One Becomes What One Is

The title of the original on the right is, "Ecce Homo." How one becomes what one is, indeed.
This movement from point A to point B pretty much sums up how I feel most of the time.



For some reason, I believe Germans are obsessed with how they poo. From said poo, they can assess the state of their health. I could be wrong about the whole German thing but it's certainly true for me as well as for traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. And pediatricians. They always ask: How's the poop?

It seems pretty obvious, actually. Poop is a great indicator of how my whole system is operating, how I'm processing the world — or the part of the world I'm consuming. If things are, uh, unrefined I tweak my intake, the what as well as the how — less fried eaten less quickly; less raw, more cooked vegetables; no dairy; no wheat; more black sesame seeds (yum!). The point here is not as much poo as it is that I consider my output and adjust my input accordingly.

So I take this basic diagnostic function and apply it across my life. Sometimes, for stretches, I am just out of whack. I misplace things, stub my toe, hit my head on drawers and desk corners. My output is poor. And so I examine what I'm doing. Is it too little sleep? Too much booze? Ambien? Porn?

Sometimes, it exceeds any one thing I'm doing. Things get totally out of whack and it's hard to pinpoint. I'm just in some kind of cosmic eddy — over the course of two months, my sister died; my start up ran out of money and refused to pay what they owed me; my girlfriend decided she needed someone who would give her babies and left me. Yes, sometimes shit happens. And then it has a tendency to spiral: someone steals my license plates, I scrape my car pulling into a parking place, my health insurance premiums skyrocket overnight. This is what is technically called a clusterfuck.

But we are never solely passive in this world. We are constitutive of it, even if our actions are supremely limited. When I'm in a clusterfuck, I am part of that clusterfuck, necessarily. I think of that great bumpersticker: You're not stuck in traffic. You are traffic.

At times like these, I think of Nietzsche and his Russian fatalism. The Russian soldiers, retreating from Napoleon, found themselves deep in the tundra, snow everywhere, the cold eviscerating, food nowhere to be found. And so the soldiers would lie down, surrender to their conditions, move as little as possible. When you're sick — sick in every sense, ill as well as ill constituted, when you find yourself amidst a clusterfuck — it is sometimes wise not to move at all, to sustain your energy and see if you can ride it out. From Nietzsche's Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is:

Against all this the cultural worker has only one great remedy: I call it Russian fatalism, that fatalism without revolt which is exemplified by a Russian soldier who, finding a campaign too strenuous, finally lies down in the snow. No longer to accept anything at all, no longer to take anything, no longer to absorb anything-to cease reacting altogether. This fatalism is not always merely the courage to die; it can also preserve life under the most perilous conditions by reducing the metabolism, slowing it down, as a kind of will to hibernate. Carrying this logic a few steps further, we arrive at the fakir who sleeps for weeks in a grave.

It seems not irrelevant that the title of that now well known painting, botched during its restoration, is Ecce Homo. There you are, a fresco of Jesus just kicking it. And then some lady comes along in the name of making you look better and, well, you end up looking like that. How one becomes what one is, indeed.

Of course, on the subject of Russian fatalism, sometimes doing nothing can be the death of you. Some change, some exertion, is necessary. This is poignantly true when it comes to dealing with other people, to relationships both romantic and not. This is why when little Joey starts acting like a real little asshole, his parents wonder who Joey's friends are. Needless to say, Joey's out of whack system, his poor intake, might be due to his depressed, overbearing, Ativan-addled parents.

But it's important, if difficult, to turn that diagnostic eye on yourself. Ever been in a romantic relationship in which, much to your horror, you find yourself saying horrible, passive aggressive things to your so-called lovey? At first, you think it's all her: she did this or that and so I'm right in having my knipshit and saying these repulsive things! But then it happens again and again. And while she no doubt bears some responsibility, the fact is the words and ugly moods are coming out of you. This is a psycho-romantic version of having shitty shit — explosive, inconsistent, unrefined, ugly and uncomfortable.

This is your system out of whack: bad things coming in, being processed badly, bad things coming out. In computer programming, this is called GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. Relationships are like any system. There are the distinct elements and then there are all the ways the different elements interact to create something else. We see this all the time in couples we know. They might be good elements on their own but, together, they're just plain old ugly. They make ugliness. They're a bad shit.

Lying down in the snow might sound mighty tempting but you gotta do something. Most likely, you gotta extricate yourself. But also cleanse yourself of all that accumulated ugliness. Because it gets into you, pervades your very fiber, how you think and feel and digest yourself. If you're saying horrible, unseemly things, you're no doubt feeling horrible, unseemly things — jealousy, anger, resentment. And these sensations will just kill you.

Now, an aspiring Nietzschean (whatever that is) or Buddhist (whatever that is), might say: Well, you gotta affirm everything! If I'm in this clusterfuck, I need to affirm this clusterfuck. This is life, too!

But that's just silly. The goal, it seems to me, is to optimize your health and vitality, to engineer your life to be a system that produces beautiful things. This doesn't mean you won't feel terrible, be sad, grieve, fight. But those are healthy, good things, even if unenjoyable. A life out of whack is something else entirely. It's a poorly construed system, one that spirals downwards into nothing, into the abyss, into ugliness.