Monthly Archives: March 2008

The idea man

News of the death of science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke is evoking a huge number of responses across the Internet — this is one of the most heartfelt. One of the very first books I bought with my own money was a 50-cent paperback edition of Clarke’s 1963 novel Dolphin Island: A Story of the People of the Sea, which introduced me to a wide and varied menu of things: hovercraft, cetacean communication, the joys of night-diving at the Great Barrier Reef and even an Australian ghost story. Not long after, I was thoroughly creeped out by his short story “Walking Alone” and greatly amused by “The Nine Billion Names of God,” a gimmick story with a great gimmick.

First and foremost, of course, I will always remember him with fond admiration for helping Stanley Kubrick blow my young mind with 2001: A Space Odyssey, my first totally immersive moviegoing experience, made all the more powerful for the solid conceptual foundation Clarke provided with his story “The Sentinel.”

To me, Clarke embodied all the best qualities of old-school SF: its boundless technological optimism (even the age-old enmity between dolphins and orcas gets resolved in Dolphin Island); its generous spirit (unlike, say, Robert A. Heinlein, Clarke never gave you the feeling there were back alleys of his mind best avoided after dark); and its eagerness to imagine new avenues for human ingenuity. He wasn’t the most graceful stylist in the world, but he was a nonpareil idea man — most famously as the forecaster of telecommunications satellites, but also with such mind-bending concepts as elevators into space. And he had a lyrical side that came out at unexpected moments. I’m glad I made an acquaintance with Clarke’s stories — his exalted view of man’s prospects in the universe can still have a tonic effect.

Guess who’s coming to guest-blog?

Madam Mayo graciously invited me to her estancia for a little guest-blogging. The results are here. Biography! History! Industrial archaeology! Infiltration! Collapsing bridges! Losta fun. Drop by and say hi.

Quote of the day

From Michael Swanwick, whose essay on James Cabell I praised to the skies not all that long ago, comes this pearl of wisdom:

My single best piece of advice for new writers is to go to as many signings, readings, and other public appearances by writers you know are good as you possibly can. That way, when only three people show up for your signing, you won’t slit your throat.

I’ve logged about twenty appearances for The Last Three Miles since the hardcover came out in June, and all of them have had at least one redeeming quality, usually more. But the abyss always lurks just around the corner, sprouts, so read and take heed.

The storyteller is dead

A lovely tribute from Kristy Kiernan. Thanks to J.D. Rhoades for pointing it out.

Mysteries of his father

The Guardian has a terrific profile of V.S. Naipaul, Nobel laureate, novelist and literary journalist. Much of the story is already familiar, though beguilingly retold, but this passage about Naipaul’s father and life in his native Trinidad reveals much about the roots of Naipaul’s often acrid view of what used to be called the Third World:

. . . Naipaul’s father. Seepersad Naipaul was a shadowy figure in his eldest son’s childhood. ‘The man himself remained vague,’ is how Naipaul puts it. But his story is as terrible and vivid as anything found in the pages of English literature. A Trinidadian Indian, Seepersad was 26 when Naipaul was born, and had recently become the local correspondent of the Trinidad Guardian in Chaguanas, the heart of the sugar industry. Seepersad was so bursting with literary ambition that he wrote under many names – as Naipaul (or Naipal) and also as Paul Nye and even Paul Prye. His son remembers he took him to see the Ramlila, a pageant-play based on the Ramayana, and also ‘read everything’ aloud – Charles Kingsley, Charles Dickens, HG Wells, Gulliver’s Travels, high and low culture, snippets and stories from newspapers and magazines. ‘It was little pieces, but enough,’ he remembers. ‘Without it, I would have been a dead man.’

But there was one story Naipaul senior could not tell his son. As a Trinidad Guardian reporter, Seepersad, who had a horror of Indian cult magic, possibly linked to a conflict with his wife’s primitive beliefs, had written a number of articles exposing the use of Kali cult practices to fight diseases in cattle. His reports had aroused intense local hostility and finally death threats from the devotees of the goddess Kali, who now declared that unless Seepersad made a conciliatory gesture, he would become poisoned and die. In June 1933, when little Vidia was barely a year old, his father was forced publicly to sacrifice a goat to atone for his journalism. It was a terrible humiliation. His career was ruined, he had a breakdown, lost his way in the world and died of a heart attack in 1953, before his son had published a word. When Naipaul later asked his mother about his father’s insanity, she replied, ‘He looked in the mirror one day and couldn’t see himself. And he began to scream.’

“Little pieces, but enough.” How many of us slowly built up our identities and our pictures of ourselves that way?

In Naipaul’s case, those little pieces took him all the way to Oxford and a dazzling literary career that couldn’t have been less like his father’s vain strivings. But early in his career, Naipaul paid a kind of tribute to his father with his 1961 novel A House for Mister Biswas, still my favorite among his many works, and still the book I recommend to anyone starting out on V.S. Naipaul.

The Tony Montana fan club

The Smoking Gun has pictures of Tony’s lil’ friends.

Behind grey walls

You can either go to the church of your choice/ Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital/ You’ll find God in the church of your choice/ You’ll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital.

“Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie,” Bob Dylan

Though Woody Guthrie had been transferred to Brooklyn State Hospital by the time Bob Dylan wrote “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” in the early 1960s, the folk icon’s decline had begun years earlier, and when the young Dylan came to the New York area to launch his career, Guthrie was under care in Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morris County, New Jersey. Guthrie’s stay at Greystone and his visits from Bob Dylan are the subject of a TV segment (apparently unaired) from the same people who brought you Weird New Jersey, and you can watch it up above.

The clip plays up the spooky aspect of Greystone, but nobody who grew up or lived in northern New Jersey in the mid-20th century will have trouble seeing Greystone as a spectral presence. Back then, if somebody goofed around too much, we would invariably joke about calling the men in the white coats to have him taken to Greystone. Those were the days when involuntary commitment had not yet been ruled unconstitutional, and the possibility of getting carted off to the nearest loonie bin was a recurring theme in everything from Tennessee Williams plays to Miracle on 34th Street, not to mention the grade-B horror movies that were catnip to me. Classic movies like The Snake Pit were on afternoon television, and every now and then, a radio DJ would play the Napoleon XIV song “They’re Coming to Take Me Away Ha-Haaa!”

It probably says a great deal about the anxieties and insecurities of a more conformist age that so much popular culture was based on either the fear of being thought crazy, or the fear that one might pretend to be crazy and then become trapped in the deception, as in Brainstorm (1965) or Nightmare Alley (1947). Long before Thomas Szasz and other critics launched the anti-psychiatry movement, there was plenty of evidence of the ways in which the label “mental illness” could be applied to people who were socially or politically bothersome, along with those who were genuinely sick. For this reason, Allen Ginsberg name-checked Greystone’s “foetid halls” as one of “the madtowns of the East” in his 1956 poem “Howl,” lamenting that he had seen “the finest minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” The sediment of that anxiety could be stirred up by the mere mention of Greystone, and the fact that the looming stone towers of the hospital could have doubled for Hill House in The Haunting did nothing to dispel the feeling of menace and queasy fascination whenever I drove past the place.

Guthrie, of course, was there for a good reason: the hereditary disorder Huntington’s chorea had begun destroying him physically and mentally, but when Bob Dylan came to the area in 1961, Guthrie was still capable of spending weekends at the East Orange home of Ralph Gleason, who arranged Sunday gatherings of friends and musicians for Guthrie’s benefit. According to Anthony Scaduto’s Dylan: An Intimate Biography, the young Zimmerman spent most of his first meeting with Guthrie simply sitting on the floor next to the couch where Guthrie was lying, propped up on pillows.

One witness said that when Dylan finally did play something for Guthrie, the old lion liked what he heard.

Bob began visiting Woody at the hospital several times a week, and he showed up at the Gleasons practically every weekend over the next few weeks. By the second weekend Woody was asking for Bobby, and he would ask for him all the time: “Is the boy coming today? When is the boy coming back?” Something grew between them, between the dying originator of modern folk, and the boy who was imitating him, idolizing him, and who would soon surpass him. He would talk to Woody when there weren’t too many people around, patiently waiting for Woody to form the words that were so hard coming. Woody could not compete with crowds of people talking; he would get excited and stutter and ramble and be unable to pull together what he wanted to say. But Dylan would sit at his feet, in a corner, and they would talk. At one of those first Sundays, Bob played “Song for Woody” for him, privately, in the corner, and everyone in the room stopped to listen. And, someone remembers, Woody’s face broke into a broad smile of joy, and he said: “That’s good, Bob. That’s damned good.” Bob seems to have gone to Woody’s heart, and after everyone left, Woody told the Gleasons, “That boy’s got a voice. Maybe he won’t make it by his writing, but he can sing it. He can really sing it.”

Well, Guthrie may have gotten things a little backward, but even in the grip of illness, with his death only a few years off, he could still spot a talent.

Things I learned this weekend

1. Stockholm syndrome is real. After two days of helping prepare for and oversee a sleepover birthday party for Dances With Mermaids, in which Villa Villekula and the surrounding grounds were overrun by shrieking 10-year-old girls and I listened to endless karaoke renditions of songs from High School Musical, I found myself saying, “You know, ‘What I’ve Been Looking For’ is a pretty decent song.” Oh, the shame!

2. Some guys just don’t know how to appreciate a good situation. The sole boy invitee, rather than being intrigued by the fact that he was the only guy in a house full of girls, kept going off to play with the dogs.

3. My daughter has the coolest friends. Imagine nearly a dozen kids playing their heads off for two days and a night and nobody getting mad, getting sad or getting frozen out of anything. You can all come back anytime, kids. I won’t even hide the extended edition DVD of High School Musical 2. I promise.

Easter Yeggs (1947)

Here’s the Easter Rabbit, hooray!
The happy Easter Rabbit, hooray!
I am getting Looney Tuney, touched in the head
This whole thing is gooney, I should-a stood in bed.

My first newspaper job was with an editor whose favorite word was “yegg.” She used it to describe any of the scruffy types who cropped up in the paper’s Police Log. My first great triumph was to demonstrate that the term meant a safecracker or a thief. She told me that was very interesting and went right on using “yegg” the way she always had. Little did I know that I had been givena glimpse into the very heart of newspaper work.

Life imitates McGee

Nancy Nall looks in the pages of a John D. MacDonald novel and finds there a lesson for Eliot Spitzer.