Monthly Archives: September 2007

Sabbath theater

Brothers and sisters, join hands with me now and let us lift our voices in prayer that Philip Roth does not receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, as has been threatened from time to time.

Mind you, not because he doesn’t deserve it — if any American writer deserves those Swedish laurels, it’s Philip Roth. But I’d hate to see him turned into a pissy old crank, as happened after V.S. Naipaul got the nod, or terminal self-consciousness, as was the fate of Saul Bellow. Let Roth continue at this peak of productivity and quality, and let him keep the clear-eyed understanding of what’s happening in America, as demonstrated in this interview.

Stop, hey, what’s that sound?

First it was the The Wilhelm Scream. Now it’s The Flipper Giggle. Not only does it not appear in nature, it was created by Mel Blanc, the voice of Porky Pig.

Next they’ll be telling us that pigs really don’t stutter. (Ba-dum, bish!)

ADDENDUM: I couldn’t find any YouTube clips with the Flipper Giggle from the original TV series, but this gopher montage from Caddyshack allows you to hear the giggle in all its cetacean glory coming from the mouth of a burrowing rodent. Go figure.

The other shoe drops

As expected, writer and editor Jonathan Lethem used his talk at the Cooper Union last night to announce the contents of the second Library of America volume devoted to Philip K. Dick. Along with the unassailable 1970s choices of A Scanner Darkly and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, Lethem has included Martian Time-Slip, Dr. Bloodmoney and Now Wait for Last Year.

Aside from the weak and gimmicky Now Wait for Last Year, the other choices are at least debatable. Personally, I’d have dropped one or the other in favor of a meaty selection of PKD’s short stories, but then my telephone number obviously isn’t in the Rolodex at the Library of America’s editorial office. There’s really no faulting Lethem on any of his choices, and plenty to applaud in the way he’s helped bring respectability to an American master who spent his life confined within the “Sci-Fi Guy” ghetto.

The absence of VALIS leads one Philophile to suggest that LoA may have a third volume planned for the “trilogy” of VALIS, The Divine Invasion and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, but I have my doubts. Adam Gopnik’s much-debated essay in The New Yorker concluded that Dick was out of his mind while he conceived and wrote those books; I prefer to think his obsessions had finally gotten the better of him. Either way, they’re hugely overrated by the fans. When this second tome comes out, the Library of America will have placed the cream of the man’s work under its big black umbrella. Hooray for that.

Now THAT’S a writers’ group

When the film version of The Lord of the Rings capped off in 2003 with The Return of the King, there were all sorts of groans and protests to the effect that the film had too many endings. Turns out that J.R.R. Tolkien himself had to be dissuaded from using a final chapter that would have padded out the conclusion of his epic by another dozen or so pages:

What stopped Tolkien from publishing this ending was his membership of the Inklings – that renowned circle of Oxford writers and academics who met for seventeen years from 1932 and which counted C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams and E. R. Edison, the author of The Worm Ouroboros, among their number. It was they who pointed out the glutinous sentimentality of the scene, marshalling their forces to argue that it added nothing of substance to a narrative which had already swollen far beyond the “second Hobbit” requested by his publishers. Glyer suggests that this incident typifies the way in which the Inklings affected one another’s work, despite the fact that in later years its members were frequently to insist that their meetings acted more as a social club than a writers’ circle, brushing aside any suggestion of real influence.

Tolkien and Lewis formed the spine of the Inklings, regularly convening to read and discuss one another’s work in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College. There were nineteen members in all, and Glyer excels at depicting their world, with its petty rivalries, joshing honesty (“he is ugly as a chimpanzee”, wrote Lewis of fellow Inkling Charles Williams), its wit and learning and championship of scholarship for its own sake. The Inklings were often supportive and sympathetic (“the inexhaustible fertility of the man’s imagination amazes me”, wrote Lewis in 1949 on receipt of another instalment of The Lord of the Rings), but were capable of ferocious criticism if it was felt that a member had done anything less than his best (“You can do better than that. Better Tolkien, please!”). Tempers must surely have become frayed at times – as Tolkien became unyieldingly critical of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (“about as bad as can be”) or as the English don Hugo Dyson met the latest bulletin from Middle Earth by (according to Tolkien’s son Christopher) “lying on the couch, and lolling and shouting and saying, ‘Oh God, no more Elves’”.

Not that all of them were ever present at the Magdalen reading meetings: often no more than six or seven would turn up, while the rest preferred to save themselves for the more raucous social gatherings in the Oxford pub The Eagle and Child. Inkling James Dundas-Grant recalls a typical scene:

“We sat in a small back room with a fine coal fire in winter . . . . back and forth the conversation would flow. Latin tags flying around. Homer quoted in the original to make a point . . . . Tolkien jumping up and down, declaiming in Anglo-Saxon.”

Oh, to have been a fly on that wall — or, much better, a participant in an armchair with a pint of ale. The passage quoted above is from a new book by Diana Pavlac Glyer, The Company They Keep, that analyzes the Inklings in terms of their literary influence upon each other. It’s an irresistible subject — I’ve taken a run at it myself — because, after all, we’re talking about a group of high-level scholars whose ranks included two of the most influential English-language writers of the 20th century. And because I shared Dyson’s reaction on more than one occasion as I worked my way through The Lord of the Rings.

I’m also interested in the idea of writers’ groups, because I’ve never been in one. I briefly joined a Princeton-based group in the 1990s, but the presiding author was a queen bee type who would never read her own stuff but condescended to listen to everyone else’s feeble efforts. That got tiresome pretty quickly. I then tried to start one while living in Montclair, but the only people interested in joining were college students with erratic work habits and a Sunday-painter type who’d been grinding away at a memoir for umpteen years. There’s nothing wrong with being a Sunday-painter type — immersing oneself in an extended creative project carries great personal benefits, regardless of whether one sells the work or launches a career with it. But I was hammering myself into a professional frame of mind, with a regular writing schedule and a daily page quota, and they weren’t. We didn’t really have anything to offer one another.

I think the secret of the longevity of the Inklings was that the group grew out of another club called the Coalbiters, who gathered to read the Icelandic sagas in the original Old Norse. (The name “coalbiters” played off an Icelandic kenning for storytellers who gathered so close to the communal fire that they were almost literally biting the coals.) There are only so many sagas, so the nucleus of the group evolved into a writers’ circle.

I guess that’s the important element, the natural evolution of the group. If you’re a writer and you’ve found yourself in such a group, then value what you have and keep it going. Because, take it from me, you can’t force it to happen.

The Undeparted

One of my favorite sites, Detroitblog, used to specialize in gorgeous photographs of the derelict buildings of Detroit. Not just skyline snaps, but the kind of shots one can only get through nervy urban infiltration of the sort that can bring one face-to-face with crack addicts and less savory types living within the shells of long-dead business towers.

Lately, though, the blog has moved into celebrating the still-living businesses of Detroit. One of them is a bookstore at the foot of the Ambassador Bridge that specializes in (what else?) nautical lore. It is also affiliated with a floating post office — a small boat that delivers mail to passing ships. That’s an interesting range of skills for a potential bookstore employee.


Funny how things run in packs. I just finished watching the film version of Philip K. Dick’s mid-1970s novel A Scanner Darkly when I came across an announcement that Jonathan Lethem, editor of the recent Library of America edition collecting PKD’s best novels from the 1960s, will be talking about all things Dickian this Thursday at Cooper Union.

And then I came across this item in GalleyCat confirming that Lethem will use the Cooper Union lecture to announce a second LoA volume, one that will straddle the 1960s and 1970s novels, including — ta da! — A Scanner Darkly.

And then I came across Glenn Kenny’s post on the umpteenth re-edit/re-release of Blade Runner, which purported to be an adaptation of PKD’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but ended up being the best backdrop for a science fiction film Hollywood has yet to produce.

Which brings us back to the film version of A Scanner Darkly, which I have held off on writing about because I had a completely unexpected reaction to the movie when it appeared in theaters, and I’ve been waiting to return to it. I’ll post that reaction sometime in the next few days, but meanwhile I have to concentrate on this little shindig at the Brooklyn Historical Society. You’re all invited to join me, you know.            

The original Latin lover

For all you lovelorn Classical scholars out there, the Guardian has a very amusing piece by Charlotte Higgins on the Roman poet Ovid and his advice on how to hook up, Roman style. Ars Amatoria, or The Art of Love, was published sometime around the birth of that troublesome Jesus fellow, and may have been the reason Augustus sentenced Ovid to exile in the remote Black Sea town of Tomis, in what is now Romania. There, surrounded by Greek-speaking semi-barbarians, and constantly in fear of getting his head sliced off by one of the bands of real barbarians that frequently raided the area, Ovid wrote to his wife (left behind in Rome), fretted that he was losing his command of Latin, and penned the witty, caustic and frequently sadly beautiful poems of exile that would be his last work.  

The Higgins piece sent me back to the great 1976 BBC series I, Claudius, which was nominally based on the Robert Graves novel but is better remembered as the masterwork of screenwriter Jack Pullman, who added so much fresh dialogue and reshaped the narrative so cleverly that the TV series stands as a separate (and superior) work in its own right.

Though the actual reason for Ovid’s punishment has been lost to history, Pullman cooked up a nicely bitchy aside in which Augustus (played wonderfully by Brian Blessed, unrecognizable without his beard) complains about the smuttiness of Ovid’s poems and says “I wouldn’t have him in the house, quite frankly.”

I’ll bet that by now a couple of generations of budding scholars have laughed knowingly at that in-joke, happy to see that all those years of grad school have finally paid off.            

The day after

In today’s Altercation, Roseanne Cash writes charmingly about how cool it was to go to school the day after Bob Dylan appeared on her dad’s TV show:

On June 8, 1969, I walked in to Holy Cross School in Ventura, California, and into my eighth-grade classroom with a new mandate of confidence and coolness. My dad’s television show, The Johnny Cash Show, had aired the night before and his guest had been Bob Dylan. My dad and Bob had sat at the edge of a small stage, wearing hip black suits, with only their two acoustic guitars, and had sung a duet of “Girl From the North Country.” The entire country, or at least my entire generation, was buzzing. It was a certifiable, seminal musical event. My new mandate was justified thusly: the English teacher who had told my entire class, right in front of me — only to pretend that he had forgotten that I was there — that none of my dad’s work was worth listening to, save perhaps “Folsom Prison Blues”; the boy who had said my dad couldn’t sing and could barely talk; the nuns who had made nasty comments about my dad’s profession and attendant personal catastrophes … they could all kiss my ass. They could at least back off. No one was cooler than my dad, well, no one but Bob Dylan. But even Bob Dylan thought no one was cooler than my dad. Everything was forgiven under the terms of my new mandate (at least until MUCH later): the long absences, the drugs, the overnight jail stay, the infidelity, the bizarre and dangerous behavior and the divorce. The stratospheric level of coolness witnessed the evening before on television healed and dissolved just about every problem I had in my 14-year-old life.

I was a sprout at the time, and the only thing I knew about Johnny Cash was that he was the guy who sang a song about a boy named after a girl — a song that was amusing the first two or three times I heard it, rather less the eighth and ninth time I heard it, and downright annoying the twentieth time I heard it. Commercial AM radio being what it was at the time, that song would continue to be played many more times, until each repetition began to feel like a personal insult. In those days, the playlists were so tight you could set your watch to them, and after a while even the disc jockeys let it be known they would consider a root canal without anesthesia preferable to cranking up “A Boy Named Sue” for one more go-round.

Well, the joke was on me, ’cause when I look at the list of musical guests on this DVD of the old Johnny Cash TV show, I realize that the hippest program television has ever seen was going on somewhere just over my head. Bob Dylan? Neil Young? Louis Armstrong? Stevie Wonder? Pete Seeger? Ray Charles? And meanwhile my folks were watching every lameass Rat Pack wannabe variety show? Jeez, did I have a deprived childhood or what?

Blue Monday

Joni Mitchell has been amazing from the very first notes of her very first album, but she still doesn’t get anything like the mad respect that’s her due. She’s praised, sure, but almost always as an afterthought — after the usual rundown of Bob Dylan and others, Mitchell gets “Oh yeah, she’s great, too.” A big part of the reason, I think, is that early on she turned away from tight, rigid pop song formats. After the folkie-girl- with-a-guitar format of her first few albums, Mitchell turned to a looser, jazz inflected sound, grounded not in bluesy forms but in the kind of fusion jazz that very quickly became unfashionable. Plus (or maybe minus), the song of hers that gets played on the radio most often is “Woodstock,” a tune I would be very happy not to hear again for the resat of my life.

Anyway, it’s big news around here that she’s about to release her first album of new material in something like a decade. Crooks and Liars has the debut video of one of the upcoming disc’s songs, “If I Had a Heart,” but in keeping with today’s theme let’s also throw in a video of Joni performing “Blue,” from the album of the same name. For lagniappe, here’s her performance of “Coyote” in The Last Waltz — the most underrated moment in a most overrated movie.

The morning microphone

As advertised, I spoke for about twenty minutes on WBAI’s morning news show, Wakeup Call. The topic was my imminent appearance at the Brooklyn Historical Society (Wednesday at 7 p.m., free admission) and my book, The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway. WBAI hasn’t yet posted a page for the day’s show, but the entire broadcast is available here in three installments. My segment is in the second stretch, the one that starts with host Mario Murillo saying it’s seven o’clock and time for “yet another hour” of Wakeup Call. Here’s the MP3 — I’m about two-thirds of the way into the broadcast.

It was a good chat, made even better by the almost surrealistic beauty of the morning. I did my usual drive to Hoboken, only this time in the pre-dawn dark, and the sun was coming up as I rolled up Observer Highway. Instead of descending into the sweaty PATH station, I took the ferry over to Pier 11 and went up to the open deck to enjoy the morning breezes off the Hudson. It was like sailing through one of Monet’s paintings of the Westminster Palace — clouds of blue, lavender and pink, all brightening and resolving as the sun rose. WBAI’s office is at 120 Wall, right at the end of The Street and a only a brief, pleasant walk from Pier 11. Off to the left, in the vicinity of Battery Park, the New York police were putting on a light show — security for the Iranian president’s visit, I expect.

What a morning. Boat ride to the radio station, spend a half hour wearing my Published Author mask, then back across the river to don my Dutiful Employee mask and hit the telephone, for a lot longer than a mere half hour. Maybe someday I’ll be able to adjust that ratio.