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Washtenaw Flaneurade
31 May 2011
Lewis Mallard, Wing Commander
Now Playing: St. Vincent--"Just the Same But Brand New"

One thing that I miss about my former situation at work, besides knowing that I'd be able to sleep in almost every morning, regardless of whether or not I actually did so, was the camaraderie with my fellow workers. There's plenty of that (and increasing) in my present situation, but the evening shift was considerably enlivened by the fact that we were all "creatives" in one way or another. I wrote fiction, another was a musician, and another has gone on to great success as a burlesque MC. Conversations, especially with "J" the musician, were not only generally entertaining but often educational. It felt good to be able to bounce ideas off each other; I felt there was a fair degree of cross-fertilization underway. Their examples inspired me to keep going myself. I'll still see them at work, of course, and J and I had a brief discussion recently that confirmed me in a decision I made some time ago. He had heard an interview on NPR with a writer commenting on the fact that there now might actually be more writers than readers, and that the writer knew or had heard of a college-level creative writing teacher who required students to not only read twelve new books a year, but also to buy them and present the receipts for course credit. It was a drastic but understandable method to keep aspiring writers involved not only in contemporary creative currents, but also the industry in which they hoped to make inroads, however small.

I don't entirely buy this view. Even from my sub-bottom-feeder perspective, publishing has made a number of its own mistakes, and there are more than a few success stories that highlight ways out of the corporate minefield which has, largely for technical reasons, become such an obnoxious object of scorn for many aspiring writers (and readers). My own two published stories were brought out by an individual in another country who I'd never met (Chris Wood of British Horror Films), who published them in an anthology through Lulu simply because he liked the kind of stories that came out on his web forum. I also consider it highly unlikely, physically or otherwise, that there will be more writers than readers for a very long time. Maybe in MFA programs, but doubtfully elsewhere. The imbalance is probably growing, though, and the thought made me question further my own creative priorities. I've written previously on my decreased reading due to increased writing, but that isn't the whole story.

One of my literary heroes, Michael Moorcock, gave an interview about ten years back for Mojo in which he encouraged budding fantasy writers not to read fantasy, as much of that genre was conceptually enslaved to the half-century-old techniques and concerns of a reactionary Oxford English don who only did what he did because he found the Norman Conquest an unparalleled linguistic tragedy (I'm embellishing just a little, but it's accurate in general). While this advice was largely given for ideological reasons, Moorcock was also keen to ensure that budding writers of his ilk had a wide grounding in different types of literature (I think he mentioned Angus Wilson and Elizabeth Bowen, among others). At the time, and since, I chose to focus on the no-man's-land between the genres that people like Dunsany, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith had explored so brilliantly well before Tolkien (and Neil Gaiman since, with mixed results), but I fear I may have taken Moorcock's advice a little too much to heart. I grew into the kind of automatic curmudgeon I'd always distrusted, and almost completely threw over contemporary fiction of any kind (minus a few favorites, like Laurie Notaro or Alan Furst) for "the classics," whatever those are. The only time I generally came into contact with anything post-1980 was in the pages of the New York Times Book Review (when Borders still carried it). Recently, with my drive to build an artist's portfolio of sorts for myself, I started to slide off reading altogether, occasionally nipping into a non-fiction work that looked particularly interesting (Colin Tudge's The Bird and Alan Taylor's excellent reexamination of the War of 1812, to name two). For someone like me, who had once prided himself on reading hundreds of books a year, it was a bizarre turnaround.

I've been writing stories and working on a longer project now since the end of August, and have written over 100,000 words in doing so. It went very well for much of the time; I wrote or finished seven stories and made considerable headway on the projects. Towards the end, though, it's become rather wearing. I've been forcing myself sometimes to make my quota (at least 2000 words a week), and there have been a few shameful occasions when I've failed. I don't want to end up producing knowingly substandard work through a misguided sense of artistic duty. It's helped that the writing has considerably enlivened a traditionally drab and dismal season; I came close to utter despair my first few winters in Ann Arbor, and though having a social life generally took the sting out of them after 2005, there was always the threat that the black dog would return, a threat that was soundly neutralized by the sense of purpose and accomplishment I had this winter. This weekend I start a break which could last well into the autumn (although even now I've planned a "working vacation" in the late summer, in honor of one recent idea which I've arbitrarily decided needs to be written next to a pool as much as possible). Much of this break, I suspect, will involve reading. I still have a pile that needs to be broken (including The Tale of Genji, Don Quixote, and long-awaited revisitations of Thucydides and Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy), and even then I shouldn't let that interfere with my rediscovering the contemporary (I've recently made stabs with Lorrie Moore and Denis Johnson). I've had enough grounding in the "classics"; it's time for me to act my age in the best way and realize that a love for one doesn't have to preclude an interest in the other. I knew that once and it's high time I knew it again.

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985): I felt I owed it to the memory of the 1980s, as I would miss June's Plastic Passion, to watch Madonna's big-screen debut one evening. It seemed especially pressing as I can no longer tell her and Lady Gaga apart (I understand this is a big worry for people). After I finished, I couldn't believe how I'd let such a lovely, funny genre-blending film escape me. Director Susan Seidelman began her career with the low-budget Smithereens, about punk and new-wave culture in New York during the early 80s, and Desperately Seeking Susan bears unmistakable imprints of that same culture. Richard Hell shows up in a small role, as do a great number of later cinematic luminaries of the 1980s and beyond--John Turturro, Anne Magnuson, Giancarlo Esposito, Laurie Metcalf and others (there are even echoes from earlier avant-garde periods, as Peter Maloney, who appeared in Brian DePalma's films of the late 1960s, as well as 1969's magnificently scattershot Putney Swope, appears as magician Ian). New Jersey housewife Roberta (Rosanna Arquette) becomes obsessed with the frequent mentions of "Susan" (Madonna) in the personals section of her paper, and eventually tracks down the mystery woman to a rendezvous at Battery Park in Manhattan. What follows involves eternally entertaining plot devices such as mistaken identities and jewel thieves, all at the service of one woman's self-discovery. Madonna's first film sees her at her freshest; she came out of the same New York bohemian milieu (albeit as a transplant from Michigan, including a stint in my own present city) as Seidelman's earlier work, and her exploding celebrity at the time helps her adopted culture to galvanize the film's aesthetic and style; these were 80s I could get behind (I couldn't get "Into the Groove" out of my head for several days afterward). Though Madonna's casting was doubtlessly a big draw and "Susan" is in the title, the film's focus is Roberta's transcendence of her suburban lifestyle and mindset (it's refreshing that husband Gary, though somewhat caricatured, isn't a complete douchebag--Mark Blum played a similar though less sympathetic role in the same year's Crocodile Dundee). I'd forgotten how affecting a screen presence Arquette was; luminous, feisty, independent and determined. She apparently still keeps busy these days, but it's great to see her at the beginning of an interesting career in Susan. We don't learn much about what makes Roberta tick (she mentions "dreams," but they're never spelled out in the slightest detail), but then again, she hasn't been given much chance to find out, and the possibility that she might soon have time makes for a happily exciting notion.

Iris Owens, After Claude (1973): After Claude marked the start of my attempt to get back into buying and reading books on impulse again. I had a long and fraught history of such in my younger days, but had scaled down drastically in my thirties for various reasons I may already have mentioned--now, happily, space rather than finance plays the major role in this restriction. There's a larger post in the dilemma, but I'll stick with After Claude for now. The grimly hilarious account of one woman's breakup and near crackup in boho Manhattan, After Claude almost instantly took pride of place in my heart next to satirical masterpieces like A Confederacy of Dunces and Lucky Jim. The comic vision is equal to the former and the prose has maybe even greater belly laughs than the latter. After Claude defiantly claims its own identity, though; Iris Owens was a ferociously uncompromising female writer of postwar America (and Europe, where she dabbled in pornography--"porn" sounds so post-her) who never quite realized the promise some saw in her and likely didn't care. At a time when second-wave feminism was in full swing, Harriet was an annoying, unstable, toxic heroine who would hardly have offered an inspiring example to anyone. The plot is fairly simple. Harriet is dumped by her French boyfriend Claude and sent away from their apartment in Greenwich Village. After a series of stratagems to win him back (or at least to restore the status quo), she ends up at the Chelsea Hotel where she falls victim to a weird cult partly led by Roger (who acts on the orders of the even more mysterious Victor, a name which I just realized has a great deal of similar significance for me). Harriet narrates throughout, and her disdain and sarcasm are inexhaustible and unstoppable; the first half of After Claude has a railroad tempo that's hardly noticeable until it's almost over (when Harriet reaches the Chelsea). Seeing the diatribes and put-downs rendered in such plain type on the page put me in mind of Laurie Notaro; I wonder if she's a fan. I won't try and single out a particular zinger; they seem to blend into themselves to make it nearly impossible.* The final third is strangely downbeat, quite unlike Confederacy or Jim. I never got the feeling that Harriet really learned anything or that she's headed for better things; it's a strange kind of comic novel, in my experience (I should definitely read more; again, for another post), but all the more bracing (and Harriet all the weirdly nobler) for it. The experience of reading was strange in itself; Harriet's struggles with Claude came in the intervals of the Tickled Fancy Burlesque Company's show at the Blind Pig; patrons must have thought the frequent outbursts of laughter from the guy in the corner pretty peculiar, if they noticed at all. The madcap histrionics and bitter wit well matched my friends' antics on stage. The next morning, wrapped in the comforting arms of a deliciously mild hangover, the alternately amusing and creepy account of the Chelsea Hotel perfectly fit the gray morning outside and the occasional nagging feeling of another weekend almost gone. Though I can't promise such an aesthetically perfect reading experience for others' introduction to this terrific novel, nobody should let the possibility of its absence stop them.

*Oh, all right: "Claude, who had learned his English in England, spoke with one of those snotty, superior accents, stuffed into a slimy French accent, the whole mess flavored with an occasional American hipsterism, making him sound like an extremely rich, self-employed spy." And "Maxine had more accents than Peter Ustinov, but unless you punched her in the stomach, you never heard the real one."

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: 31 May 2011 5:13 AM EDT
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