Off the (w)rack(ed with guilt)

Spent the early afternoon at a big, outdoor outlet mall up in New York state, where I spent money I probably shouldn’t have (since I’m supposed to be salting everything away for a number of reasons), on a variety of things:

$20 on books (The September 11 Photo Project, The Muse Asylum, and Baby, I Don’t Care);
$35 on t-shirts, underwear and a three-quarter-sleeve shirt at Jockey;
$60 on a sportcoat at Claiborne for Men (so I’m a homo, alright?);
$25 on a hooded fleece overshirt at The North Face.

None of these purchases made me feel too guilty. The problem was at the end of the line, when I walked into the Hugo Boss outlet. Now, I told myself I was going in just to browse around, maybe gawk at the Russians and Japanese who were filling up the place, get some ideas for neat looks (because my current one probably isn’t that appealing).

After all, I couldn’t possibly buy clothing from a company whose founder was renowned for designing dress uniforms for the SS, and using slave labor to manufacture it, could I? Why, just a few days ago, walking through Garden State Plaza, I saw some suits in the window of the Hugo Boss store, and thought, “Nice look. If only it wasn’t named after a guy who made the SS look so snappy.”

And that got me reflecting on the intersection of fashion and fascism, which I really don’t need to get into right now.

Why not? Because I found a sharp, $800 suit marked down to $100, that’s why. I tried it on. It fit wonderfully, looked great, and made me feel pretty bad. Until I thought, “Y’know, Gil, at this price, it’s actually hurting them more than if you boycott the place.”

Lifetime Piling Up

Not much blogging going on this past week. It’s been yet another case of Lifetime Piling Up, as the Talking Heads posthumously put it. There are a number of themes I’d like to write about in the next few weeks, including the retirement of Patrick Ewing’s jersey at Madison Square Garden, Ron Rosenbaum’s recent NY Observer article on the legacy of James Jesus Angleton, the ongoing process of publishing Paul West’s new book, and the inadequacies of Don DeLillo’s Underworld (I said I’d give it a shot, but I can’t imagine how I’ll make it through the thing; and I actually read Infinite Jest!). I hope to write up a bunch of these themes soon. So check back. At the very least, I’ll try to write up my embarrassing celebrity encounter stories . . .

Boil Gas

Last night, I went to the 92nd St. Y for a literary reading. Well, half of a literary reading. The writer I went there to meet was William Gass, one of the best writers in America (and therefore, cynically speaking, one of the least read). Mr. Gass and I had spoken a few times before, to discuss the projects Voyant was working on. I asked him for an introduction to The Place In Flowers Where Pollen Rests (since he and Paul West are friends, I thought he might offer to help us out), but he demurred, saying he was “introduction-ed out.” When it came time get blurbs for the book, Mr. Gass was suffering health problems and wasn’t able to help us out.

It was gratifying to see (okay: hear) him read last night. The selection was from a new novel. Referring to the labor that went into his previous novel, The Tunnel, he remarked, “I hope this one won’t take me 26 years to finish.” It was a chapter called “The Inhumanity Museum,” and it detailed the contents of his lead character’s top-floor rooms, in the home he shares with his elderly mother. The character, a music professor at an Ohio college, has accumulated newspaper clippings of all manner of human atrocities, in scrapbooks, pinned to walls, hanging from carefully placed strips of flypaper, “like niggers strung up on lampposts to teach someone a lesson.” At one point, reading a chronological section from the clippings, Mr. Gass broke from the reading and invited us to insert our own present-day atrocities. He chose one from a Feb. 15 newspaper, mentioning how several vials of smallpox were retained in labs, after the disease had been destroyed in the wild. Activists insisted on not killing the remaining samples, so as not to knowingly make any species on earth extinct.

The reading (35 minutes or so) was astonishing. The motif of the work was that the lead character’s fear that the world would end had been replaced by the fear that the world would live. Mr. Gass pressed utterly beautiful sentences into the service of a character’s unremitting hatred. I was reminded of his Paris Review interview from the late 1977, where he said,

“What is psychologically best for a writer is what produces his best work. I suspect that in order for me to produce my best work I have to be angry. At least I find that easy. I am angry all the time . . . My work proceeds almost always from a sense of aggression. And usually I am in my best working mood when I am, on the page, very combative, very hostile. That’s true even when I write praise, as is often the case . . . I also take considerable pleasure in giving obnoxious ideas the best expression I can.”

The articulation Mr. Gass brought to the character’s rage was sharply contrasted by the evening’s other reader, T. Coraghessan Boyle, who treated the upper east side audience like a drinking crowd at a comedy club. Mr. Boyle strode to the podium in black Tommy Hilfiger sweatpants and red Chuck Taylors, and tried to “warm us up” with witty banter, or a simulacra thereof.

Mr. Boyle proceeded to read a chapter from his new novel, Drop City, about a fictional commune in 1970. His reading was, to put it bluntly, atrocious. The sentences were leaden, serving only to tell the reader/listener “what happened next.” And what happened next is that the lead character gets the shits after shooting and cooking a deer. The audience found lines like “He needed toilet paper. NOW,” to be the heights of humor. During Mr. Gass’s reading, they only laughed during a section in which the narrator implores the rotting world to “fuck on,” beginning each paragraph with that sentiment. As though, in 2003, an old man saying “fuck” is cause for schoolyard titters.

Mr. Boyle’s reading went disastrously well. The audience ate him up, as though he was “the poet and prophet of our age” (fuck you, LA Times), rather than a second-rate screenwriter. Because that’s what his reading of Drop City was: a screenplay. There was nothing in the writing that needed to be written, rather than spoken. No interior life beyond the cardboard, easy sentiments of his commune-dwellers. Bad writing.

Problem is, most everyone was there to see him, not Mr. Gass. After the readings, there was a book signing/wine reception in the art gallery, where two lines formed. Mr. Gass’s line had perhaps 25 people, while more than a hundred waited to see Mr. Boyle. I got on Mr. Gass’s line, and found myself engaged in a strange conversation.

Two elderly women stood behind me, and one of them mentioned, “He seems so angry. I thought his reading would turn pleasant at some point, or that the character would find something good in the world.” Her companion clucked, and agreed that it had been rather depressing.

I turned to talk to them, and said, “Well, he’s fueled by rage. It’s inside a lot of what he’s written.”

One asked, “Has he written many books?”

I was puzzled. I wondered how two old women find themselves at a reading of William Gass, then actually get on line to talk to him, rather than just head home after hearing his beautifully angry writing, if they had no idea who he was or how much he’d written over the years. It turned out, of course, that there was a story. There always is, I guess.

One of the women brought the other for moral support (I didn’t get either of their names). Turns out that her daughter married Mr. Gass’s son many years ago. From what I gathered, they had two children (Mr. Gass’s grandkids), but there was a divorce (several, actually), and he had become estranged from that branch of the family. I’m not sure, but it may be that he never saw the grandchildren. But, the woman told me, “At the wedding, out of 150 people, he only saw fit to talk to me. He was so interesting to talk with, but I found it so odd that he wouldn’t talk to anyone else at the reception.”

She brought photographs of the grandchildren with her. “But I don’t know how he’s going to react to seeing them.”

“Hmm. Maybe I should go first,” I said, “just in case he flies into a rage and storms out of here.” They laughed, a bit nervously.

Eventually, I got to speak to Mr. Gass. He remembered me from our brief phone conversations, which I found gratifying, and said he”d be pleased to give me a blurb for The Immensity of the Here and Now. I gave him my card and some postcards from Voyant’s other books. He signed my copy of the first trade paperback edition of Omensetter’s Luck. I’m not particularly fixated on getting books signed, but I thought it”d be a good idea to come prepared. And I wasn’t going to carry The Tunnel with me, given the back pain that would have accompanied it.

Later, while I chatted with a woman whose brother brought her to the reading, the two old women came by. “He said he was happy to see me, and took the photos. He even wrote, ‘Thanks for the pictures of the grandkids, Bill Gass.'”

“He signed mine, ‘William H. Gass,'” I told her. “So that’s probably a friendly gesture on his part.”

“Do you think so?” She seemed happy, so I left the evening with a smile. Even though I was mightily pissed off at the legion of poseurs who had come to worship Captain Bullshit and his limp prose.

But I’m not bitter.

A Brush With Fame

Saturday was one BLEARY night in NYC, off gallivanting with my high school buddy Adam. Got back to his apartment around 3:45am, but not before stopping at a “street meat” food cart a block from his midtown apartment.

We met up with Debbie, another high school friend, who was, Adam informed me, Cindy Crawford’s personal trainer. We didn’t remember each other at all from Strath Haven, which may have been for the best. I only attended high school with them for a year (Mom & I moved down to Pennsylvania in 1988, going into my senior year of school), but seem to have more friends from that one year than I do from the 17 years I spent in New Jersey. There’s probably some significant reasons for that, which I’ll go into at a later date.

Earlier in the night, before meeting Adam at the 2nd Ave. Deli (ostensibly kosher, but open on Saturday; go figure), I walked over to St. Mark’s Book Shop, where I thought I’d browse, try to get some ideas for what I’m going to do with the Paul West book’s design. A short, balding, stocky man with sideburns walked past me and around the other side of the shelf I was browsing. I was pretty sure I recognized him, wrestled with the thought for a moment, and went over to confirm my suspicion.

“Mr. Shawn?” I asked.

“Yes?” he replied.

So there I was, standing in the presence of Wallace Shawn. Now, most people who can visually identify him don’t know his name. They probably see him and think of the two great character roles he’s played in the movies: the “That’s inconceivable!” guy from The Princess Bride, or geeky Mr. Hall in Clueless (which he also played in the TV version). Don’t get me wrong; both were fine movies, but I’m pretty sure hearing about those roles burns his ass. It’d irritate ME, if I had higher intentions than comedic bit-parts.

Which Mr. Shawn does. His father, after all, was William Shawn, a legendary editor at The New Yorker. And, beyond all the comedy roles, Wallace Shawn graduated Harvard and Oxford, wrote and starred in My Dinner with Andre, and translated Machiavelli. So rather than bring him down by citing his (gifted) comedic work, which mainly plays off of his cartoonish appearance, I said:

“I just wanted to let you know, The Designated Mourner may be one of my favorite plays ever.”

A smile brimmed his face. “Why, thank you,” he said.

We talked briefly, then I left the store. I thought about taking out my digital camera and snapping a shot of us in the store, but:

a) I didn’t want to draw too much attention to him; and

b) I would’ve had to crouch down pretty far to fit both of us in the frame.

I have several other bumping-into-celebrities stories that I’ll share sometime. The best one involves meeting demented redneck baseball pitcher John Rocker . . .

News To Abuse

Sorry not to have written in the past week. Work’s been hectic, and my evenings have been spent at work on that Paul West book (“The Immensity of the Here and Now”). I’m going to publishing it, and hope to have it all put together in time for a hardcover release by 9.11 of this year. This site’ll likely chronicle a lot of that activity, offering some insight into the strange world of small press publishing.

And now, on with the Gil Roth Show . . .

Y Kant Gil Turn Away

I was helping put together an NEA grant application for one of my authors last night (yeah, I know, exciting way to spend a Friday night; sue me), and had VH1 Classic on in the background. For those of you not familiar with it (I think it’s only on satellite), this channel spends most of its time showing videos from the 1980s. And not just later ’80s metal bands or anything; VH1 Classic airs ridiculous amounts of great New Wave tunes and post-New Wave pop. Which is to say, it’s my childhood (youth, really) splattered on a TV tube.

Last night, during the Request Hour, they aired a video for a song called “The Big Picture.” It was from Tori Amos‘ first effort, known as “Y Kant Tori Read.” I recognized the voice and turned to watch the video. I found myself transfixed for the next 4+ minutes. Somehow, a major label felt that they needed to position this girl as Tiffany’s sluttier sister. The hair was teased up, the skirts were short, and she spent the last two minutes of the video bouncing to a beat, with the camera strategically trying to catch some jiggling.

No, really. Tori Amos. Jiggling. Now, this isn’t to say she wasn’t kinda hot, especially in the part where she was wearing leather low-riders and a little green top. But considering how her career took off when she was re-positioned as a demented art-school girl of doom (I’m generalizing; don’t kill me) a few years later, it’s sort of an amazing transformation.

I mean, there are times that I marvel over the career progression of The Beatles. They managed to go, in 4 years, from (incredibly gifted) pop music writers into innovators whose work is so profoundly uncanny that we barely recognize its influence upon us. By which I mean, a bunch of aspects of contemporary music are so Beatles-derived that we have a hard time imagining that they didn’t exist previously. Not to give them sole credit/blame for music today. In fact, they were part of a pretty insanely creative matrix of musicians that drove each other to greater heights through competition. But that’s neither here nor there.

What I’m getting at is that, given the Lilith Fair-like aspect of her later career (which, from what I gather, has led to a bizarrely esoteric recent release), it’s hard for me to imagine that she would’ve been so willing to be marketed like that back in 1988. But then, a lot of people do crazy things for fame. I’m fortunate enough not to have come anywhere close to fame, and instead have negotiated my way through a whole ton of regular life.

And, though I’ve barely listened to Tori Amos’ work since about 1995, I’ll always hold her in a certain regard. After all, without her Little Earthquakes album (plus Diva, by Annie Lennox), getting girls during my senior year of college could’ve been a lot tougher . . .

Straight But Not Narrow

Spent yesterday down in Philadelphia, helping out my friend Robert Drake. In 1999, Drake was beaten nearly to death by a couple of queer-bashers in his apartment in Ireland, and has been slowly rehabbing since (he’s in a wheelchair now, and likely will be for the rest of his days). After the attack, his loved ones moved him back to Philadelphia, where he lived before moving to Sligo. Yesterday, I drove down from northern NJ to help move him into a new apartment. Turned out that most of the big move was done, with the furniture and TV getting moved on Thursday by Drake’s “chief operating officer,” Butch. The remaining job was moving 70-80 boxes of books to the home of Ed Hermance, owner of Giovanni’s Room, a queer bookstore on 12th & Pine in Philadelphia.

[For reference’s sake (and I know I’ll come off as vaguely homophobic here), I’m straight. I have a lot of queer friends, and one of the books Voyant has published is about as queer as it gets, but hey. Before he was attacked, Drake and I were walking to The Book Trader, and he mentioned that I fell into the “Straight, but not narrow” category. I was glad to find out this exists.]

After leaving Ed’s place, I met up with an old (girl)friend from grad school. We had tea at a little cafe (I quit drinking soda, particularly my greatest friend/deadliest nemesis, Cherry Coke, back in October), talked art and geopolitics, and probably riled some antiwar protestors at a nearby table. My pro-war stance and its rationale tend not to go over very well. My tea-companion, however, understood where I was coming from.

Many of my friends don’t. While my suburban coworkers tend to be much more in support of deposing Hussein, my friends tend to be against it. They tend to believe that it’s solely a blood-for-oil war. I understand where they’re coming from, and I don’t think it’s entirely wrong. Obviously, stabilizing the oil supply from that region would be a boon for America, Europe, and other industrialized countries. However, I’m not sure that these protestors are truly grasping the significance of 9.11 and the necessity of this pre-emptive military policy. I’ll write more about this later, when I’ve put it together more cogently.

PS: If you’re a charitable soul and want to help Drake out, make a tax-deductible contribution to the Robert Drake Health Fund, c/o Arch St. Meeting, 320 Arch St., Philadelphia, PA 19106, or call 215.629.0257.

Happy Valentine’s Day

It was a happier Valentine’s Day than I was expecting. As if in response to my Pattern Recognition complaints, something astonishing happened yesterday. I received what may be the first legit post-9.11 novel.

Background: in addition to editing a pharmaceutical trade magazine by day, I run Voyant Publishing, a small press publishing house, by night. One of the authors I’ve published, Paul West, recently asked me if I’d be interested in looking at a new book of his. We worked together last year to reissue his great novel, The Place In Flowers Where Pollen Rests and, though sales have been sluggish (we’ve done much better with the scatological queer porno romance mystery academic thriller novel, The Mad Man, by Samuel R. Delany), Mr. West seemed impressed enough by our operations to offer me the new book.

Yesterday, it showed up in the mail. I got home from work and found a shoebox with the return address of Mr. West’s wife, the poet and essayist Diane Ackerman, sitting at my door. Any plans of going into NYC to meet friends on Valentine’s Day were dashed. I sat down and read the first section of the book (65 pages) after dinner, and was floored. Mr. West has thus far seemed to nail down the book I’ve been desperate to see since the terrible events of 9.11. I had to restrain my impulse to call him at home and tell him that we’d publish it. There’s still 350 or so pages, and things could go awry. But I’m amazed at what he’s written so far. (My apologies for the vagueness: it’s deliberate, in order to respect Mr. West’s privacy and not give away too much about an unpublished book.)

Always thinking as a publisher (in addition to an aesthete), it warmed my heart that Mr. West chose a title almost as difficult to remember as The Place In Flowers Where Pollen Rests: that is, The Immensity of the Here and Now. Never hurts, with books that need word-of-mouth promotion, to use a long and unwieldy title . . .

I’d Order the Fish

Feb 10: Traveling to Phoenix for a pharmaceutical conference (day job). Off my head right now, mainly from not getting enough sleep (the result of a double-OT finish to the NBA All-Star Game last night, and my compulsion to finish reading Gould’s Book of Fish before this trip. It bears re-reading, which is as high a compliment as I can give a contemporary book.
I wanted to finish that one so I could have a “guilt-free” reading of William Gibson’s new novel, Pattern Recognition. I was intrigued by the idea that he set the book in 2002, basing it firmly in a post-9.11 world, instead of an indeterminate SF future. However, that reality seems barely to exist, even though the lead character is a New York resident (she’s in London as the novel begins, and has now jetted her way to Tokyo). Only 150 pages in (as if Gibson had written the previous pages before the attacks) do we get a real mention of the attacks, and Cayce’s story of that day. And it was a pretty lifeless story. The character only expresses the moment-to-moment of that morning, then glosses over everything else. While the destruction of the towers was obviously the most traumatic, emotionally devastating part of the attacks, the reshaping of the world afterward should have been much more prominent in Cayce’s psyche.

As is, there’s barely any sign that this novel needs to be taking place in 2002 (so far). Outside of the necessity of talking about a “new century,” there’s no sign of a new world. Wouldn’t cool-hunter Cayce have noticed the hip trend of banging firemen, in the months after the attacks? With all her talk of grading athletic gear brands, shouldn’t there be some mention of seeing these things on donation piles for the relief workers? Not so far (halfway in). The resonances that could bring the book more vividly into our day-to-day are lacking. Perhaps it’s a function of Gibson’s living so far from here (Vancouver), not seeing what the fruits were borne in the months after.

So I”m disappointed thus far. I”ll probably finish the book before we land, given that this flight is actually FIVE HOURS long (I thought it’d be closer to four, for some reason), and they’ve already gone through the 90 minutes of Jennifer Aniston trying to act like she has conflict (“The Good Girl“).

Feb 11: Not much improvement in the book. Read all but 50 pages before the end of the flight. Get to that tomorrow, on the way home. Plenty of action and adventure, and a sorta mystical way of making art that doesn’t sound that convincing. It’s like my buddy Tavis Allison once said about Signal To Noise, a comic by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean: “I know this is supposed to be about the grand, final film in the movie-maker’s head, but all of his descriptions of it seem to add up to five minutes of screen-time . . .”

Gotta find something else to read on the flight back. And have to pray that it’s a shorter jaunt than the trip here, when we spent almost SIX hours in the air, thanks to those darn headwinds.

Feb 12: Finished it up in the morning. Hung over a little from gallivanting poolside with margaritas, but that didn’t alter my impression the book. Not a good sign, Mr. Gibson. So it was essentially a McGuffin chase across semi-exotic settings (London, Tokyo, Moscow), a la Count Zero, except this time it’s not an AI building bricolage, but something equally implausible. It’s a fantasy world, bearing little resemblance to our own. I suppose I was hoping for a more “literary” novel than this, but when you get down it, Gibson’s a potboiler writer. I ignored his last two books, mainly because he seemed like a cheap SF knockoff of Elmore Leonard (whose work I’ve only read a smidge of). No real change here. I’m being a bit harsh, because he DOES get at some of the peculiarities of our Internet culture (though not blogs, curiously enough) in the book. But that almost exists just as a method of moving the plot along.

Who’s Next

Having run out of shelf space, I’ve been placing newly acquired books in a stack beneath my hall table. It’s my intent to read those titles before getting to work on any of the others that are already shelved in my apartment. The books in this “to read” pile are:

Gould’s Book of Fish – Richard Flanagan (in progress)
Rembrandt’s Eyes – Simon Schama (in progress)
Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archeology of the Minoan Myth – Joseph Alexander McGillivray (in progress)
Pattern Recognition – William Gibson
The Spooky Art – Norman Mailer
The Art of Happiness – The Dalai Lama
Master Class – Paul West
Ella Minnow Pea – Mark Dunn
The Coast of Utopia – Tom Stoppard
I: Voyage
II: Shipwreck
III: Salvage
The Rush for Second Place – William Gaddis
Mendelssohn is on the Roof – Jiri Weil
Abe: Wrong for All the Right Reasons – Glenn Dakin
The Rainbow – DH Lawrence
Sons & Lovers – DH Lawrence
Cheops: A Cupboard for the Sun – Paul West
Graham Greene Omnibus
The Heart of the Matter
Stamboul Train
The Burnt-Out Case
The Third Man
The Quiet American
Loser Takes All
The Power and the Glory
Possession – A.S. Byatt
All Stories Are True – John Edgar Wideman
Nightwood – Djuna Barnes
Nova – Samuel R. Delany
The Encyclopedia of the Dead – Danilo Kis
Philip Roth & the Jews – Alan Cooper
Gothic – Richard Davenport-Hines
Little, Big – John Crowley
Underworld – Don DeLillo
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers

One thing to know about me is that I’m a man who qualifies virtually everything. So, to clarify one impression that I’m afraid this list of unread books might give, I’d like to make some points about the final two selections.

I don’t like Don DeLillo’s work in general. I think he’s overrated and tends to obfuscate as a replacement for having something to say. My opinion is somewhat mirrored by B.R. Myers in his Reader’s Manifesto, which was first published in the Atlantic Monthly.

I first tried reading Underworld shortly after it was released, a season that saw strong new works from a number of older writers (Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, and Normal Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son). I dropped the book after 30 pages, when it became evident to me that DeLillo’s writing was nowhere near the level of those other three authors. During an early passage, a man in the 1950s discourses about the Importance of baseball. I was stunned that a writer with such affection for the game, beginning what many felt to be his magnum opus, felt the need to try to tell the reader everything of importance about the sport, rather than finding a way to show it to us. I decided I had better things to do than subject myself to the rest of the book.

Taking that into account, I’m willing to give it another chance. I saw the book recently in the “to sell” box in my attic space. I thought about something Harold Bloom once wrote in The Western Canon, about several contemporary writers whom he most definitely did not think would reach canonical status. He wrote:

Robert Lowell and Philip Larkin are here [on this list of canonical writers] because I seem to be the only critic alive who regards them as over-esteemed, and so I am probably wrong and must assume that I am blinded by extra-aesthetic considerations, which I abhor and try to avoid.

In that spirit, I’m willing to give Underworld another chance.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is in the same boat. I picked up a paperback copy of the book in Heathrow during a business trip to Milan in the fall of 2000 (a journey that warrants another rambling entry in this blog). I read half the book during the trip, and was astonished at how boring it all was. Outside of a few genuinely touching or funny passages about the difficulties of a 20-something man raising his kid brother, the book was almost completely lifeless. The facile PoMo stance of the author also served to help me develop one of my more severe aesthetic critiques: my dislike of works that make middle-brow people feel smarter than they are. This is a refinement of a principle I used to refer to as the “lowest college denominator,” which I’ll expound on at length some other time.

Suffice to say, inclusion of smarty-pants postmodernist tricks and pre-emptive, but logically specious arguments to counter any critique of his work has placed Eggers firmly in my “lowest college denominator” segment.

But, again, I’m willing to give it a second shot, and I’ll see if I’m wrong.

If there’s any public clamor for such a thing, I’ll provide a link to a bibliography of everydarnbook I’ve read since 1989. I only recently (in the last two years) started writing annotations on those titles in the list, which makes for even more fun & excitement (if you lead a sad & boring life).