Blog

Delieb Watts 5

Dylan Honored at Raucous Affair

unknownRapper Kanye West interrupted Bob Dylan’s Nobel acceptance speech in Oslo Thursday during a revamped awards ceremony aimed at making the 115 year old prize more “culturally relevant.” Amid a chorus of catcalls, West stepped in front of the perplexed laureate saying, “I’ma let you finish, Bob, but Beyonce is one of the greatest writers of all time.”

Earlier in the evening, Norwegian Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjørn Jagland seemed taken aback when Dylan stepped forward to receive his medal after Ragland had recounted the author’s death following a bout of drinking at the White Horse Tavern in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1953. It’s not immediately clear if the committee thought they were crowning Welsh poet Dylan Thomas posthumously.

The West incident is not the first time Mr. Dylan has been upstaged. During Dylan’s 1998 Grammy performance a deranged interloper, discovered later to be poet John Ashbury, lept on stage and began gyrating grotesquely with the words SOY BOMB inexplicably sharpied across his naked torso.

Asked later what it means to be immortalized alongside T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner and Pablo Neruda Dylan replied, “Aw, those guys can’t rhyme for shit.”

Delieb Watts 5

“You’re Either With Us or Part of the Problem”

SeussI’m still not voting for Hillary—civilization be damned—but I don’t find her quite as objectionable as I did just last week, and I’m trying to figure out why; if it’s a simple case of forgetting, already, in the sense that Milan Kundera has written about, or if it’s something truly deficient in my character, or if it’s just everyone else.

In the hours and days since her supporters have stood down following Hillary’s nomination, one has had a moment to think. And what is objectionable is not the hysteria issuing from her camp—yes, the shrillness—as the realization that their arguments are one’s own arguments. Like hearing one’s voice played back over a tape recorder, one’s revulsion is a self-revulsion.

Clinton apologists are profoundly deceived if they think this is all just appearances. It’s a perceived attitude that drives so many working class Americans away from the left. It is the rather unthinkable arrogance to say, “You’re either with us or you’re part of the problem.”

You see, it’s not Hillary. It’s you.

Delieb Watts 5

You Say You Want a Revolution

imagesCan we all please just stop saying “revolution”?

With apologies to Bernie Sanders, no true revolution can take place within the American political system—or any other.

Revolution does not avail itself of the political process. Revolution is the violent overthrow of political process. (Not mere regime change.)

Though such movements may find fertile soil in the putrefying remains of outmoded ideologies, they are not part of their vital functioning. If they are said to spring from them at all, they do so as paroxysms of conscience, not as logical outgrowths of thought.

The closest Mr. Sanders could come to effecting a “revolution” would be to run as a third party candidate—no great repudiation of the system itself, though a rebuke of the false choice between Clinton and Trump.

He will not. Why? It may be that power has a certain gravitational pull, as Barack Obama can surely attest, that alters one’s course. Perhaps Mr. Sanders has also peered over that event horizon so few of us ever approach, and gazed into the abyss.

To envision revolution is to envision oneself on an historical plane that transcends the personal, the sentimental, the practical.

For now, we are to satisfy ourselves with reshaping the party plank. Not the great takeaway Mr. Sanders promised. Rather, the acculturation of another generation of voters to the realpolitik of life.

Those that say they did their part to change history, that they are not responsible for what the world wants . . . the hard truth is they are now more fully implicated in its operation.

Delieb Watts 5

You Work For Us Now. Click Here To Like: The Facebook Ad Scam

hqdefaultI recently noticed an unsettling similarity between “likes” I garnered from a paid Facebook ad and ones I got trolling those “get free likes” sites that send you to click on stuff in return for the “likes.”

As I ran down the list of those who’d responded to my advertisement (selfie-taking Pacific Islanders in wifebeaters and gold chains, teenaged girls in various states of dishabille, and one Laotian family man with assembled clan peering expectantly out of the frame), it occurred to me that they were all the same . . . the paid ones and the random ones . . . or in cahoots.

When I finally got through to Facebook and explained that this was not the book-reading public I was after, I was met with haughty bureaucratic disdain: I had better define my demographic more precisely next time. In fact, “Memoir” is a social media app—not as I had incorrectly assumed, a literary sub-genre. And the people whom Facebook had targeted, though lacking any sort of biographical data or post history, were in fact bonafide persons.

Which is unlikely, I think; that’s what was really bothering me. I don’t believe in all these people.

It’s not that the numbers are beyond us in any computational sense (they are); we’re just not genetically programmed to take in humanity on this scale. It is not biologically adaptive. Not that the great mass of others is any less real than we are—this is the great existential lesson the internet has to offer: how improbable, redundant, and unremarkable each of us is—but our participation in their lives is false. Therefore, they are false, ersatz persons—abstractions, properly, whom we can only exploit in the course of our interactions with them. . . because we lack the imagination and the will to invest them with full personhood. (Which is pornography, really.)

While unwittingly supporting this sub-economy to inflate my social media statistics, I am, unbeknownst to myself, in its employ, too—though not, perhaps, in some backyard click mill under molding tarp, choking on fumes from a gas generator twelve, sixteen, eighteen hours a day, and clicking 10, 20, 30 links to earn a penny . . . but deceived, none the less.

It is the logic of capital, which knows only accumulation, that has brought us here. And it consents to use us as well.

As for the rest: The fix is in. Our days are numbered.

Like me on Facebook.

Delieb Watts 5

On the Uses of Truth and Violence in Phil Klay’s Redeployment and Mary Karr’s Lit

 7659691_orig

3369647_orig

I’ve been reading Phil Klay’s Redeployment and Mary Karr’s Lit at the same time, which has been instructive. The books arrived from the library within a few days of each other, and I started with Lit as the more “literary” work—Karr the more authoritative “memoirist”—then switched to Redeployment because I’d frankly grown weary of Karr.

Of course all comparisons are unequal—an account of combat versus an account of literary aspiration and solitary drinking, particularly so. But what really distinguishes the two pieces—one memoir, one memoiristic—are their divergent methods.

Open each book. Lit begins with the author addressing her son: “We both remember, albeit in varying tones of gray and black and shit brown,” she says, “the misery I mired us in.// That’s the story I want to tell: how I started getting drunk. . . .”

Redeployment begins, after a few pages of exposition essentially, with the author putting down his old dog. Where Lit begins with a rhetorical aside murmured through layers of sensibility, Redeployment reveals the author in a moment of profound, if sublimated, grief.

What’s especially fascinating about this scene in Redeployment is the canny way it comes around to its deeper subject: the prosaic details of killing human beings, and the author/speaker’s fluency in this language.

“The first two have to be fired quick, that’s important,” the narrator says. “Your body is mostly water, so a bullet striking through is like a stone thrown in a pond. It creates ripples. Throw in a second stone soon after the first, and in between where they hit, the water gets choppy. That happens in your body, especially when it’s two 5.56 rounds travelling at supersonic speeds. Those ripples can tear organs apart.

“If I were to shoot you on either side of your heart. . . .” Klay continues, drawing us down his sites.

Karr, on the other hand, seems content to ignore the fact that we’ve just opened her book and expect to be let in in some manner, not simply left to fidget on the mat while she finishes some conversation within: “Maybe by telling you my story,” she continues addressing her son, “you can better tell yours, which is the only way to get home, by which I mean to get free of us.”

As I read on in Lit, I felt as if a burr had got into my shoe. With Karr you have a sense of constantly being one-upped: Her Texas childhood was grittier, her poetic ambition loftier. Her beau Whitmore, whose patrician manner and wonderful jaw brought me within a whit of throwing the book out the window, more refined.— But he’s right, too. She’s an unabashed arriviste. . . . She’s drunker, darker, more deeply read and profoundly wronged, and she’s not afraid to tell you so.

In fact there’s no space left for the reader in this book.

Klay, by contrast, comes at you so indirectly, shifting narrative from one character to the next—from infantryman to chaplain, to student—that it becomes clear his desire is to woo the reader, though it’s a complicated relationship, part seduction, part confession, part assault.

This urge is dramatized best by the pose of world-weary veteran using combat cred to seduce women in bars with a certain, gnawing loss of self-respect. To quote somewhat impressionistically the narrator in “War Stories”: “I’m fucking tired of chicks getting off on it . . . I don’t know, I had a girl crying once when I told her some shit . . . I wanted to choke her . . . Why?”

I don’t have an exact answer for that . . .

“I’d told him that if he gave this girl his story, it wouldn’t be his anymore.”

But that pose is impossible to hold. There’s  a very real psychological need to tell one’s story. Not to unburden oneself, but to explain oneself. As well as an ethical responsibility to the Truth.

The difficulty of the Truth is beautifully rendered by analogy in a chapter in which a Psychological Operations veteran and an outspoken female classmate verbally spar. She’s made some spurious accusations against him, and he’s played the part of the damaged vet to get out of any administrative repercussion. But now he regrets it, both because he can’t abide her pity and because, he says, “I’d given her nothing but lies. And now she had whatever guilt I’d dumped on her. To leave her with that, I thought, was cowardice.”

As he contemplates telling the real story of his deployment, his inner monologue becomes a meditation on the act of narrative (memoir) itself: Sitting on his porch with her, he thinks, “I wasn’t PsyOpsing her into it, so I didn’t know how she’d react. Or if I was PsyOpsing her, since you’re always exerting some kind of pressure even when you’re laying yourself bare, then it was the least conscious maneuvering I could do.”

His story, however, fails to connect. “. . . now that I’d told the story, I didn’t feel I’d actually told her anything at all. I think she knew it, too, that the story hadn’t been enough, that something was missing and neither of us knew how to find it.”

Karr’s narrative is not burdened by this kind of ambivalence.

​There are moments of emotional clarity and unearthly beauty in Karr’s prose: “I was seventeen, thin and malleable as coat hanger wire, and Mother was the silky shadow stitched to my feet that I nonetheless believed I could outrun.”

But such flights can seem motivated by a writerly conceit—as if a facility with language were enough in itself— “the myth [she falls for even as she writes about it] that if I could shuffle the right words into the right order, I could get my story straight, write myself into an existence that included the company of sacred misfit poets whose pages kept me company as a kid.”

“Showing up at a normal job was too hard,” she concludes, by and by. So she tries to “commit suicide” in fairly desultory fashion, then arrives at McLean quoting Lowell.

Lowell, however, understood something about confessional poetry that seems to have escaped Karr: it’s not always what happened that matters. It’s conveying a sense of what happened that comprises the confessional art. Not to confabulate, but to select. (The hubbub over some recent, wrongly embroidered memoirs has oversimplified the distinction.)

(The crux of Lowell’s poem “Waking in the Blue”  is his stoical vision of the “future grow[n] familiar.” One senses Karr looking past all experience toward some hoped-for future, which is perhaps the compensation of a parvenu.)

As the Psy Ops narrator and his classmate in Redeployment sit in the dusk, past that hour “where everyone looks the best version of themselves,” he tries again, goaded by failure, to convey something of himself. And he tells the story of how, upon returning home (we come to understand this is the true “redeployment”) he’s told his father about Iraq: how, as a Psychological Operations officer, he’d provoked an Iraqi fighter to abandon his position by taunting him over a loudspeaker. “A thousand American dicks in your daughters,” etc.

“I get it,” his classmate says, but the narrator presses on with his story.

“I get it,” she says again.

“But you don’t like it,” he says. “My dad didn’t either. He’d rather I shot them in the face. In his mind, that’s so much nicer. So much more honorable. He’d have been proud of me, if I’d done that. You’d like me better, too.”

“. . . And I told my father everything,” he continues, (his confession enmeshing all of us: reader, narrator, father, girl) “insult by insult . . . described every sexual act, every foul Arabic word. I’d cursed for him and at him in English, in Egyptian, in Iraqi, in MSA, in Koranic Arabic, in Bedouin slang, and he’d said, ‘Enough, enough,’ his voice shaking with rage and then terror because I was standing over him shouting insults in his face, and he couldn’t see his son any more than I . . . .”

It’s this sense of disappearing into experience, of being overwhelmed, that occasions the writing of Redeployment, I think. A sense of being left alone like the disfigured vet (burn victim) in a later chapter, who feels absolved, finally, of the burden of human contact.

Karr indulges other desires.

Reading these two books ultimately begs the question: Which person do we like better? That’s a reasonable enough criteria, I think, to weigh art that springs from a confessional urge, as such art involves a sense of proportion and tact, which have everything to do with storytelling, and nothing to do with personality in the sense of moral rectitude or niceness, or in Karr’s case vindication, which is quite beside the point of confessional writing, despite its insistence on facts.

Delieb Watts 5

Prolog of the Gods

Everything seemed merely analogous, Fitzwelter thought​ one morning as he toyed with the deflated egg yolk on his plate. Full of hue and resolution one moment . . . a bank of smashed pixels the next.

​The apples at the market glowed a quarter inch beneath their skins. Grapes lolled obscenely. At school, his students marched from car to class to library to minimum wage jobs at Starbucks and Forever 21, and to weekend Guard gigs, politely and cheerfully. Without fail they completed each item on the rubric. (Their only complaint was not being told what to do.)

The lights switched on and off; the statement arrived each month on the fifteenth explicating kilowatt hours. Trains ran. The car started. The dog slept by its bowl. And the evening news droned in the background.

Fitzwelter punched the button. The machine chimed and the screen glowed dull grey, and Fitzwelter waited long, anxious moments for the software to load.

Yet how significant everything seemed, all of a sudden, as if some invisible hand were pulling everything taut.–

As if—actuated by some intention (some meta-theory as to why the water ran out the tap and books were written)–a virtual intelligence with all its petty antipathies, sublimated violence, and fantasies of sexual inadequacy had disrobed and come swaggering into the room to reveal itself.

The computer screen came to life and Fitzwelter began to type.

Delieb Watts 5

Breaking Bad Men

Unknown-1It’s been noted that television has become increasingly concerned with character as it evolves away from episodic storytelling. (I would add that streaming, which makes it possible to watch characters unfold in a rapid flip-book, has placed an added onus on writers to develop characters in meaningful and credible ways.)

Of course in order to sustain this kind of arc, a clear view to the end is needed. Otherwise things come up short. The onion is peeled too quickly, as in the Dexter series, leaving us with a story line in which the character merely repeats himself or worse, drifts into a kind of self-parody; or is subject to an interminable number of arbitrary, capricious and increasingly bizarre plot twists, as in the Lost series; or buffeted about by storytelling convention like Vince in Entourage whose writers clearly read their McKee, changing things 180 degrees at the end of each scene: big movie deal, no big movie deal, bigger movie deal, no bigger movie deal, ad infinitum; or remains essentially himself, like the Hank Moody character in Californication, who manages, contrary to the classic Gleason model, to keep falling out of the arms of a good woman.

Jax Teller, despite his Machiavellian scheming, is never able to see through his mother’s treachery and despite obvious Shakespearian parallels, gives us little substance—no closet scene, no “readiness is all” speech, just a bloody denouement.  And Don Draper, I am guessing (I am still waiting for free streaming of final episode!) remains caught by his past as well as his (unexamined) womanizing.

One of the more compelling characters in the last few seasons is Breaking Bad’s Heisenberg who, as he is lured further into the labyrinth of his own machinations, resorts to greater acts of calumny. But the real interesting arc is actually Heisenberg’s wife: her undeception, her gradual cooption and final rejection of her husband provide a fascinating counterpoint to Heisenberg’s flailing. Heisenberg’s character merely “jumps the shark” in the cringe-inducing “say my name” scene.

These anti-heroes (for the most part) seem rather one-dimensional, despite their obvious flaws. Their motives are simple: get laid, get paid. The only complication is when someone or something stands in their way, occasioning greater, more energetic feats of self-aggrandizement.— One extraordinary exception I would argue is Tony Soprano’s murder of Christopher, which is so stunning an act of cold-blooded calculation that it thrusts us into a whole new relationship with the character, forcing a new set of criteria upon us. But this kind of “peripety” or logical surprise is the exception that proves the rule.

The ultimately disappointing series finales are indicative of undeveloped character. Dexter’s self-exile is unrooted. In Walter White’s change of heart, too, one senses the writer’s heavy hand, rather than destiny at work.

Says series creator Vince Gilligan, “We didn’t feel an absolute need for Walt to expire at the end of the show. Our gut told us . . .  that it would feel satisfying for Walt to at least begin to make amends for his life and for all the sadness and misery wrought upon his family and his friends. Walt is never going to redeem himself. He’s just too far down the road to damnation. But at least he takes a few steps along that path. . . . “

But is that really what Walter White has to say?

*
3 Comments

Paul Bryant
10/5/2015 09:56:17 am

“Where’s *my* arc?” – Christopher Moltisanti

Thanks for the good read.

Reply

nick
10/6/2015 04:44:15 pm

Right. Yeah, “Where’s my arc,” he says. Where’s my arc? (shouts at the ceiling)