The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer

executionerssongIt’s true. There really is nothing like it.

Eleven hundred pages of narrative journalism. Gary Gilmore is released from prison, tries to re-integrate while being a nuisance to friends and families, falls in love with Nicole Barrett, murders two innocent people for no reason, is put on trial and convicted, given the death penalty, refuses to appeal, is executed. In detail both scintillating and banal.

Unlike In Cold Blood, this is not a book trying to understand why Gilmore did the things he did. He spent half his life in prison and was trouble since he was a child. Truth be told, he was a huge asshole. Selfish and racist and manipulative, often under the guise of eloquent and grandiose language. Indeed, his spiel about why he never appealed his death sentence — because he was responsibly accepting his punishment as determined by the people — was a complete farce. He just didn’t want to live out the rest of his life in prison.

Generally the defenses of capital punishment — punishment, deterrence, removing a future threat — are kind of bullshit. But the last might have actually applied to Gary. If he got out, no one would be surprised if he hurt anyone again. Also, the typical criticism of capital punishment: that the state does not have the right to kill anyone, while still true and certainly disturbing when reading of the attorney general and co. scrambling into a rickety plane in the middle of the night to sprint through the Denver circuit court to avoid a stay of execution, does lose a bit of steam when the defendant actually does not want to die.

Yet, willing or no, sociopathic asshole or no, it’s hard to describe the execution as anything other than utterly wrong. On something almost like a primordial level, before you even get to moral. Killing another human, regardless of justification, is just psychologically damaging. The body rebels. Even the people who fought for the execution, or the men who voluntarily carried it out, either felt it was wrong afterwards or had to continously convince themselves they did the right thing. It was only the conservative Utah public, far from the body and blood and gunshots, that could approve with great moral righteousness and zero qualms. Despite a cynical and hobbesian notion of human nature that many subscribe to, we are simply not well-equipped for close-quarters human-to-human violence. It only becomes easy through distance and dissonance.

Don’t get me wrong though. This is not an opinion actively espoused by Mailer. The narrative is trying very hard (successfully) to be as impartial as possible. It’s a major strength of the book. No where is this more clear than in characterization of Nicole Baker. Teen mother neglecting her children, sleeping with pretty much anybody, messed up priorities, and firmly entrenched in the web of Gary Gilmore. There’s many ways this could go wrong. But Mailer’s clinical prose, striving to make the voice as close as possible to the real Nicole, slots the reader firmly into her state of mind. Makes it possible to understand how she was sucked into Gary’s web.

The book does have one clear weakness. After Gary is convicted, several TV producers fall on the scene trying to buy up the rights to all the prominent character’s stories. Chief among them is Larry Schiller. While it’s interesting, both the parasitic nature of the media and internal conflicts between money and morality layered therein, there is way, way too much Larry. One hundred pages too many. At least. The only point I would say The Executioner’s Song bored me was when it strayed too far from Gary and Nicole and the rest.

Great stuff.

Lilith’s Brood (Xenogenesis trilogy) by Octavia Butler

liliths-broodThere’s a peculiar quality in media produced during the Cold War, especially the late five-minutes-to-midnight era. Not just the fear and hopelessness — that’s present in plenty of time periods and cultures. Instead, it’s the near-certainty that humanity had reached its apotheosis. That mutual self destruction was indeed assured. This is the end of the road. 

So when, prior to the events of Lilith’s Brood, the US and USSR have blown each other apart and the rest of the world is succumbing to the after effects, it’s no surprise. It’s a simple inevitability. But it’s what follows that I find truly peculiar to the time.

An alien ship approaches Earth, scooping up any surviving humans it can find. These aliens, the Oankali, spend generations seeking out new life to integrate with and mate/merge genetically. Starting with our heroine, Lilith, they plan to train squads of humans to return to a primitive earth and produce children with them. Any humans who refuse this offer are either permanently locked in stasis (to be experimented on) or allowed to return to Earth, but sterile. No more true humans are to be made.

Why? Science! Genetics! The Oankali are so fine-tuned at examining genes that they’ve concluded that humans are genetically inclined to eventually blow themselves up. It is the conflict of both intelligence and hierarchical behavior in all of us. Destruction is inevitable. This isn’t an alien conceit either — the narrative never challenges it. In the world of Lilith’s Brood, genes are everything, including the extinction of the species. Even when book 2 flirts with the notion that humans could have a future separate from the Oankali, that future too would eventually be doomed.

Sitting from the vantage of 2016, where we’ve averred mutual destruction thus far and managed to survive the catastrophic world-breaking powers we gained in the 20th century, the moral center of the book is off-kilter and never truly believable. Not that humans can’t be prone to violence. Certainly we see that is still a world-spanning problem every day. But basic behavior being purely guided by genes? Not just violence but gender roles, sexual assault, etc. The behaviors Butler takes for granted as genetic truths is what we would deride as biotruths today. In other words: mistaking cultural habits for genetic ones.

This whole set of notions is more of an attraction than a repellent. Butler is a great writer. Her prose is crisp and leads to a comfortable story flow. The Oankali are a wonderfully realized and believable set of head-tentacled, three gendered aliens. It’s science fiction that exists without the shackles of genre trappings. If it feels dated, well, it is 30 years old.

That is, until book 3 anyway. If you’re reading this series for the first time, I’d suggest skipping it entirely. The first book is the aftermath of destruction. The second is the rebuilding. The third is a smaller, first person alien story lacking any of the greater human conflict. It’s very repetitive, repeating many of the same alien biotrait stories we’ve read before. My opinion, not supported by the narrative voice in any way, is that the Oankali really are just galactic parasites. That their promise of human-oankali hybrids was a lie, because we can see from a first person perspective that their children are simply Oankali with a slight human veneer.

As you can see, even when describing what I dislike, it’s within the context of the story, rather than “the writing was bad” or “the plot didn’t make sense”. It definitely sucks you in.

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

golden-notebookTedious but interesting.

Anna, a writer of a one-time bestseller, keeps several notebooks — a journal, a novel, reflections on youth, etc — to maintain her sanity in a world in active opposition to her ideals. The book blurb and title would have you believe she combines all these into a golden notebook, however that only occurs in the final fifty or so pages of this seven hundred page book, which gives you a good idea as to how it’s paced.

Some classics resonate with time. Others are diminished by it. You can guess which I think The Golden Notebook is. In one of the prefaces, Doris Lessing notes that when the novel was first published, protagonist Anna was viewed as extremely “macho”. It’s just about impossible to get that impression nowadays so the effect is lost. Indeed, while heralded as a staple of literary feminism, and touching on misogynist elements of society that persist today, that portion of the novel feels out of touch with modernity. Largely because of how extremely passive Anna is. We recognize her situation sucks, but it’s hard to say exactly why she continues to sleep with these awful married men.

And feminism isn’t really the focus anyhow. The bulk of the book is a growing disillusionment of the English communist party in the 50s, as the Soviet dream fell apart and peoples across Europe came to know how terrible Stalin was. While it’s an interesting counterpoint to cold war America, since it was actually possible to openly be a communist without being blacklisted or imprisoned,  the text here is  highly specific and lengthy for a utopian mentality that barely exists* anymore. It didn’t feel necessary to read I guess I’m saying.

I finished it. Despite TEDIOUS being my prime descriptor. The characterization of Anna and the content did keep me going. I doubt I ever need to return to it.

*Yeah, yeah, there’s plenty of Marxists still around, but the specific ideal English communists treasured and its razor sharp focus on the Soviet Union is not the same thing.

The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols

milagrobeanfieldwarCheck out this cover: A skeleton in a sombrero with a bottle of tequila. Intentionally yellowed page edges. A brick of mass market paperback in that unmistakable font that used to signify A BOOK to me before trade paperbacks took over and the construction of the book itself became stylized. Along with the funny title, these are the reasons I picked this up for three dollars (more than its original sale price) and took it home.

Do you ever stop to contemplate a physical book that is older than you? This book is about a decade older than me. While I was busy being born and learning to read and playing super mario brothers and being bored at school and entering the workforce and getting married and whatever else up until the present moment, this copy of The Milagro Beanfield War was out there, somewhere. Maybe having adventures and being read by all sorts of people (there was an old receipt stuffed between the pages of the book from a now defunct airline). Or maybe it was just read once and stuffed in a trunk before being sold to a used book store many years later.

Anyway, enough musing. Review time.

This is a political book. The war of the title is not a joke nor a bloody battle, but a sort of Cold War between the inhabitants of Milagro and a combination of the wealthy landowners and government forces seeking to abscond with their ancestral lands to create a golf course and surrounding tourist amenities. It’s a story of rich versus poor, old versus new, white versus brown, tradition versus capitalism.

The chicano subsistence farmers of Milagro, New Mexico have lived and died there for hundreds of years. They were there before the US won the Spanish-American War and they’ve been there since. Never really gaining anything in the way of wealth, they’ve survived OK off the land, taking joy in beers on the front porch, mariachi music, and hunting and swimming around the gorgeous and serene mountain lakes that frame Milagro. But for the past several decades, trouble has been brewing and the working class farming community has slowly morphed to true hopeless poverty. Milagro’s inhabitants are all in danger of losing their lands. Indeed, many already have. They’re pushed into service jobs in faraway cities and a huge portion of them are on food stamps.

What happened? Bureaucratic water laws driven by interests far from Milagro, with dead eye sights on economic growth, out of state tourism and the March Forth of Progress. It almost does not need to be said that the poor farmers of Milagro whose land is the fuel for this endeavor will never see any of profit.

This leads to the events of the novel: Joe Mondragon, fed up with the directionless path his life has taken, heads out to his late parents dusty property and diverts a stream to irrigate a paltry beanfield. A simple gesture, but a seriously illegal one with major political implications that Joe himself, a fiesty hot-head, doesn’t even consider. Government agents, water rights goons, local businessman, and a slew of other interests converge on Milagro, plotting how best to dispose of Joe and his beanfield without blowing the whole delicate political situation like a powder keg. The community of Milagro, slowly, through various means both violent and peaceful, starts to unify in response.

While the paragraph above outlines the plot, it’s not truly the focus of the novel and it falls into the background for many pages at a time. Joe himself will disappear from the narrative for large swathes, heard only of in rumor, and some of his most important deeds occur off screen. Instead, the majority of the novel is spent elaborating on the exploits and histories of its large cast of characters, from old men like the ancient, possibly immortal Amorante Cordova and one-armed Onofre Martinez (his other arm was eaten by butterflies), to the whites who found themselves in Milagro for various reasons, like Charlie Bloom, a Harvard lawyer who desperately sought to escape his own culture but has a love-hate relationship with the new one that adopted him.

This is simultaneously The Milagro Beanfield War’s defining strength and distracting flaw. While it’s essential to get to know the town to truly feel immersed in the politics and get behind the plight of not just one unique main character, but a whole slew of them, it’s also digressive and meandering to the point of madness. Every character gets a backstory, even ones who appear for a mere scene or two. Luckily it’s funny and engaging and also relevant 40 years later, where the axis of wealth and the exploitation of the poor continues.

The Recognitions by William Gaddis

the recognitions“–Reading it? Christ no, what do you think I am? I just been having trouble sleeping, so my analyst told me to get a book and count the letters, so I just went in and asked them for the thickest book in the place and they sold me this damned thing, he muttered looking at the book with intimate dislike. –I’m up to a hundred and thirty-six thousand three hundred and something and I haven’t even made fifty pages yet. Where’s your pants?”

This book is big. Simply noting it has 956 pages & tiny print does not do justice to the physical presence of the damn thing. It’s of a size you think twice about before packing in your bag for a hike. The size where you have to develop strategies of how you plan to read it on the bus when you can’t find a seat (answer: arm behind the spine with your fingers looped over the top, cradling it against your body like an infant). On top of this is the inaccessibility of the text itself — endless allusions to flemish painters, mithraic cults, obscure martyrs, not to mention the multitude of untranslated french, latin, spanish, german and more. 

The Recognitions in a nutshell: the final fate of the closest thing it has to a protagonist, Wyatt Gwyon, is entirely in latin.

The Recognitions is described as a book about art forgery. Nominally, it is, I guess. But if you asked me to describe it, which several people did after seeing me lug it around for a month, I’d tell you it was a book about vacuous art posers having amusing conversations in bars and parties in 1950s New York City, with occasional jaunts in Paris, Madrid, and Mount Lamentation, Connecticut. Also, the soulless zeitgeist and deadened spirit of our modern times and corrupt civilization.

Gaddis is among several other angry men of the 50s, declaring our society dead, slain by consumerism. You might call it phony, like everything from paintings to twenty dollar bills to novels to music that are made counterfeit over the course of this epic. The things is — all the terrible and occasionally correct things these guys were pissed off about happened. While we’ve eased up on some things Gaddis mentions like marketing drugs to children, we’re even more bombarded by constant marketing, consumer messaging, products products products. We’re living William Gaddis’ dread future. But, somehow, we survived. Art survived. Idyllic yearning for the past is now suspect. The whole thing feels passe. It’s almost self-congratulatory to be nodding your head along with Gaddis at this point. Like you just discovered Catcher in the Rye for the first time and found it found it shockingly new and illuminating.

Gaddis is especially angry though. He writes his characters to skewer them. We’re invited along to listen to them spout all these lines that the narrative voice pretty much loathes, follow them from one disappointment to the next, until Gaddis has virtually all of them try to kill themselves! This isn’t bleak, it’s caricature. I found myself wishing to grasp Gaddis by the shoulders, which I imagined slight and fleshless like Wyatt’s, and shake him while demanding “Then what is good, William??” Dedicated monastic life? Passionate flemish painters? Some sort of obscure and not entirely nailed down historic ideal that was probably bullshit in the first place?

The thing is, the reason I actually read this whole screed is that Gaddis manages to sell his hateful pessimism in an entertaining way. His dialogue is absolutely masterful — it’s a collection of unattributed lines separated by hyphens ‘–’. It strives to give the reader the impression they’re overhearing several different conversations at once and it works perfectly. Possibly the best application of unattributed dialogue I’ve ever read. He actually courts the vagaries of human speech — interruptions, repetition, filler sounds and words, the type of thing that generally isn’t readable — and it rolls right off the mental tongue.

This is all well and good, but what really drives this home is that Gaddis is funny. Even when he’s being an insufferable asshole, breaking the fourth wall by introducing a bestselling novelist just to mock him, he’s drawing laughs. Black humor abounds. He rivals Joseph Heller and David Foster Wallace in being able to sustain a single conversation for tens of pages at a time that is both deeply engrossing and hilarious. Indeed, the book is at its worst when it abandons the humor and tends towards solemnity, mercifully a rare occasion.

Still, I hoped for more. This guy supposedly influenced several of my favorite authors afterall. But Wallace and Heller and DeLillo and Pynchon are all fueled by something other than crotchety malice and doomsaying. I don’t think a story has to be hopeful. Not at all. But The Recognitions is just kicking you in the face with the message that society is corrupt and art is dead forever over and over and over. It’s gleeful almost. 

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

in cold bloodThe familiar, motiveless crime: A wholesome, small-town Kansas family is brutally murdered by individual shotgun blasts to the head.

Truman Capote’s account of the slain family, the reaction of their community of Holcombe Kansas, and the sojourn of murderers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, as they effortlessly flee the law and then foolishly deliver themselves unto it, is a gripping, classic work. First and most obvious because we, as a society, are entranced by true crime tales, especially those as masterfully written as In Cold Blood. We simultaneously have a deep interest in moral justice as well a fascination with violent criminals.

But more important and Capote’s far greater contribution: In Cold Blood does not limit its cast to ‘helpless victims’ and ‘evil ne’er-do-wells’. The four Clutters — Mother, Father, Son, Daughter are characterized fully, though clearly somewhat fictitiously as Capote reveals thoughts of theirs he couldn’t possibly know. By digging deep into the last day of their lives he shows how abrupt it all can can end. Not a dramatic build up like a movie, but day to day chores and concerns, errands to be run and college plans to be made, and then nothing.

Many more words are spent on Dick and Perry, the cold blooded killers themselves. They’re the protagonists of this narrative, really. It’s difficult to accept both the scope of their crime and the persons described, who the majority of the time act and think like normal-ish people. Perry is concerned with improving his vocabulary and likes to play the guitar. Dick is legitimately worried what his mother will think of him even as he screws her over. Even law enforcement agents who dedicated their lives to catching them for months couldn’t work up much animosity when they finally nabbed them.  

While the voice of the narrator does not promote any particular stance, it’s difficult to read In Cold Blood as anything but an indictment of the death penalty. Many of the court processes are farcical — a dubious Kansas law of the time only allowed psychiatric professionals to answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the single question of ‘Does this defendant know the legal difference between right and wrong?’ instead of the myriad and complicated answers that mental health questions demand. As a result, Dick and Perry share death row with at least one severely mentally ill inmate (later executed) who cannot truly separate the real world from his own imagination. Moreover, Kansas’ death penalty at the time was hanging by the neck, which is unbelievably barbaric. Dick Hickock takes 19 minutes to die while the bystanders convince each other he felt nothing beyond the initial drop.

But it’s far more nuanced than ‘Hanging = bad’. For one, it doesn’t take much more than to take a look at the real Clutter family…

ClutterFamily

…and read the harrowing tale of the deaths, tortured, filled with terror as their loved ones were executed one by one, and think “Yeah, okay, Perry and Dick probably should not have been hanged, but honestly who gives a shit?”

The novel makes no bones about it: While it took a confluence of factors bringing both men together to lead to murder, it was far from unlikely and if they instead went to prison for 20 years and got out on parole, it would also be far from unlikely that either man, but especially Perry, would cause major harm again. Perry, a soft spoken and intelligent man, was seriously abused as a child. We’re talking horrendous, absent or fighting parents, nuns at school nearly drowning him by holding him under iced bath water, multiple siblings killing themselves. Every position of authority in his life not only failed him but actively damaged him. He goes on to compliment Mr. Clutter as a ‘nice gentleman’ right up until he slits his throat, the reasoning of which Perry himself does not entirely comprehend. When questioned “Does severe childhood trauma lead to unknowing bursts of extreme violence?”, mental health professionals of the time emphatically replied, yes.

Dick, even harder to feel any empathy for, being an abrasive pedophile, suffered a brain injury in a car accident many years earlier. His family described him as a “different boy” afterwards. It goes without saying his brain injury went unexamined. This is hardly a passing problem either, since our favorite national sport is scarring its players’ brains on the regular, and violence as result of brain trauma is something we need to address very soon. Should already be addressing much better than we are.

But the why’s do not help answer the question of what should have been done with the two of them. The cop-out answer is that we, as a society, need to prevent them from happening in the first place. Certainly Perry at least could have been prevented. It doesn’t seem like all that much has changed in fifty years, barring perhaps the scale of violence. Mass shootings instead. We haven’t adapted to help soothe abuse ravaged minds or very specific kinds of mental illness. And again, even then, what to do when it does happen? Is there a solution beyond death or life imprisonment (in prison or a hospital) for the perpetrators? Can violently askew brains be healed?

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

man in the high castleI expected a book about the aftermath of a history where the Allies lost World War 2. While that is the setting of the book, what I actually got was many pages about running an antique business in mid-century San Francisco. And many more pages of characters pondering their daily reading of the I Ching

At first, I was intrigued. People getting by in Japanese occupied SF (many of the streets mentioned surround my workplace!) It felt like a good play-on-expectations for anyone expecting a book about Nazi America. Then I realized that’s all the book is. In other contexts, this could be fine. But I didn’t care one whit about these characters. The book makes a point to paint them all as horrendous racists, Japanese or German or colonized American. Though the first and last didn’t set up murder camps. Or kill everyone in Africa. Yes, in this history the Nazis unleashed some bio-experiment that killed everyone in Africa. Also, slavery was re-instituted in America, a point that is given maybe a paragraph of recognition. While having point of view characters on every side, it’s borderline unconscionable that there is no black character with a voice in the novel. It single handedly robs the novel of the moral authority it attempts to wield.

There’s plenty of high-concept philosophical mumbling, but it’s unconvincing and comes to nothing. You have one character going on about Nazi ideology and wishing they were gods, several enmeshed in the I Ching and Yin & Yang and maybe this is supposed to tie back to the idea of history and how we fit in it. Maybe history doesn’t matter and embracing how feeble and weak we are and potentially governed by the esoteric will of a several thousand year old book is the answer. The fact of the matter is that this is less a plotted novel and more Philip K. Dick’s endorsement of eastern mysticism. You have a man yearning to be part of a harmonious cosmos, one that obviates human agency as a meaningful factor. Embrace the wu.

(so long as you’re not African)

This was one of those books that I didn’t dislike while reading, but found myself waiting, waiting, waiting for it come together; for the narrative and thematic threads to come together and form something. A tangible plot. A philosophy or politic of interest. I was disappointed. There’s hints of something better, but they’re half baked or cast off by novel’s close. 

The Spooking Orb #5: White Noise by Don DeLillo

white noiseWhite Noise? Not a Halloween read, you say? Reagan-era family life not scary enough for you?

Listen up, pal; the theme of this novel is fear. Not fear of serial killers or tentacle monsters or lab experiments, but the granddaddy of them all: Fear of death. Specifically, fear of death in the technology and marketing focused final quarter of the 20th century, where you can’t even entertain the fantasy that death is noble or holy anymore.

I only know I’m just going through the motions of living. I’m technically dead. My body is a growing nebulous mass. They track these things like satellites. All this is a result of a byproduct of insecticide. There’s something artificial about my death. It’s shallow, unfulfilling. I don’t belong to the earth or sky. They ought to carve an aerosol can on my tombstone.

These are the thoughts of Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler studies at a quaint midwestern university and our first-person protagonist. The novel follows Jack and his family: his fifth wife and their assorted children from various marriages. Much of the book is simply Jack’s musings and his back-and-forth chats with his family and friends. It’s the type of book, like A Naked Singularity (a book that draws much influence from White Noise), where people have these long philosophical conversations about life, death, media, family that rarely ever happen in the real world. It’s a warm take on family, though. I grew very fond of this clan of fatalists.

While the novel is mostly dialogue, both external and internal, the major plot happening is a catastrophic gas leak that shuts down Jack’s town and forces everyone to spend a night huddled on cots in a communal warehouse. The Airborne Toxic Event. The family car runs out of gas while stuck in traffic en route to the sanctuary and Jack gets out for a few minutes to fill it up. The two minutes he spends outside brings him into contact with ‘Nyodene D’, the toxic contaminant that kicked off the leak, with its potentially harmful side effects. Including vomiting, nausea, deja vu, and death. Potentially.

This launches an obsession for Jack. Death. Even though the effects of Nyodene D are mostly unknown and probably won’t affect him for 30+ years (he’s in his 50s), it’s all he can think about. He repeatedly visits doctors. Then stops altogether. He discovers that he’s always been terrified of death — it’s why he created the field of Hitler studies, so he could siphon some of Hitler’s aura/endurability and stave off death. Jack steals his wife’s experimental medication. He digs through trash, chases down neurochemists. Stalks people with guns. Considers killing to increase his own longevity.

This book feels old. It was written in 1985, the year I was born. Does that mean I’m old? It’s not like the text is dated. It’s more like Don DeLillo influenced writers two generations over. Bands named themselves after his chapter headings. I’ve seen these themes rehashed so many times, seen writers attempt to mimic his wit and reflection, I felt a (topical) sense of deja vu* while reading White Noise. Even though I’ve never read it before. Not only that, but DeLillo’s influence lies heavily in Kafka, and he was writing in a time much closer to him than we are now. Take this passage for instance, which could almost be ripped right out of The Trial, if it were about medicine instead of law.

I didn’t say it. The computer did. The whole system says it. It’s what we call a massive data-base tally. Gladney, J. A. K. I punch in the name, the substance, the exposure time and then I tape your computer history. Your genetics, your personals, your medicals, your psychologicals, your police-and-hospitals. It comes back pulsing stars. This doesn’t mean anything is going to happen to you as such, at least not today or tomorrow. It just means you are the sum total of your data. No man escapes that.

Maddening bureaucracy. Death became banal and ignoble and worst of all, unfulfilling, as digital technology arose.

 

*A potential side effect of The Airborne Toxic Event!

Cathedral by Raymond Carver

cathedralThis book is called Cathedral: Stories but probably it ought to be called Alcoholism: Stories given the content it explores.

As I mentioned in my review of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Carver explores a white working class life familiar to my childhood that very few authors write about. At least not well. The practical but inimicable relationship to hated jobs, the centrality of an always-on television, a grim fatalism that can’t quite eliminate hope from the equation. But my family had this weird sort of asceticism: the dependency of the drinking class was basically absent. My grandfathers would drink a light beer in front of the TV and that was about it. My parents only started drinking, sparingly, in the last few years. Forget MJ or any hard drugs. So this collection doesn’t resonate as well, and despite being superb (Carver prose = magic), I think personal-familial musing aside, it’s just not as strong as the other collection.

Alcoholism in Cathedral is a demon. The demon. It unmans men, invokes violence and cruel madness, puts people in an early grave. Wives are willfully destroying marriages, husbands are hiding their 9am 2nd bottle of champagne behind the toilet, fathers are slapping their sons around. It’s effective, and the influence on Infinite Jest’s black comedy/horror scenes of AA meetings where people admit horrific-to-the-point-of-hilarious abuses due to the drink is crystal clear. But it does start to repeat a bit, in a less than compelling way. 

The first story is the best story; a man brings his wife to meet his work buddy, at the latter’s country ranch where he has a pet peacock and an ugly new baby. It shows us guileless, pure love, and then flips the switch to this helpless melancholy triggered by missing out on that same love, even when you tried pretty hard. It feels like maybe you only get once chance to get it right.

A shorter story from WWTAWWTAL appears here as well, except about four times the length. The first collection leaves us in a hospital with a dying child, this one kills him and shows us the aftermath, which involves repeated calls from a baker who made the dead boy’s birthday cake that no one picked up. Actually you know what? The stories about love are better than the ones about alcohol. My favorite boozing story — a couple, divorced due to the man’s alcoholism, gets together for one last magical summer — merely uses the drink as a backdrop. 

I’ve also heard this collection is supposed to be when Carver got happier and injected hope into his stories. While I guess this collection is slightly brighter, as it contains a whole two stories with hopeful endings (after a whole bunch of other bad stuff happens), it’s hilarious to call this collection happy or hopeful. It’s not happy! It’s grim! Grim with shades of survival.

 

The Conversation (1974)

conversation

— discovered on netflix, this very 70’s Francis Ford Coppola film.

At its root is Harry Caul, a bugger, a ‘surveillance man’ freelancing his time and expertise selling tapped conversations to interested buyers, typically the US government. In our modern NSA-monitored culture, it seems a bit outmoded that the government would need any help from the common man, but anyway. The movie opens with an overlay of a couple wandering around Union Square (the film takes place in San Francisco, which looks mostly the same as now except 40 years newer). Harry has deployed some fancy-ass super mics to monitor the man and the woman’s conversation from several stories up. A cameraman peers outside a window, armed with a contraption that has no small resemblance to a gun — his first person perspective puts the couple in sniper sights and we’re meant to think they will be shot.

The point of this whole exercise? Like I said, sell the proceeding tapes + pictures to the client with the bills. But wait, it turns out that in Harry’s past, he a made similar sale that led to the twisted retaliatory murder of the people he mic’d up. He’s got a sneaking suspicion that this could happen once again, with these lovers right here in Union Square. But he’s just doing his job, right? Not his responsibility. He didn’t kill anybody.

OK, sounds like a pretty cut-and-dry moral responsibility tale. Culpability. Money. Greed/guilt. And is it? Well, sort of; it starts that way. It becomes something different by virtue of several qualities The Conversation possesses.

The movie is shot in cold, empty stretches. Muted colors, haunting orchestral music, open yet constraining spaces (Harry’s office is a cavernous warehouse that feels dim and prison-like). In other words: a visual snapshot of December in SF. Cold enough to cut to the bone, feel constantly damp and difficult to ever get warm. But it’s not like arctic NYC cold, right?

Alternatively the cold palette and atmosphere is mirror to the isolation of the film’s loner protagonist. Gene Hackman’s Harry, (who looks a lot like my grandfather and the more distance that passes between me and this movie, the more in my recollection Harry resembles Roger and not Gene) is the best damn surveillance man in the business, but incapable of opening up to other human beings or forming real attachments. He is single and middle aged, his relationships a shambles. His obsession is with his true love, his work, which he guards with a pouty childlike aggression.

And indeed his work — surveillance — is the weird hook of this film. Its peak moment occurs partway through at a ‘bugger convention’. 70’s bad haircuts clustered around the newest tech for people to spy on one another. Or to con people into believing they could spy on one another. Machinery buzzes and reels spin. It’s sinister. The film asks you to believe there’s gobs of people out there just totally entranced in the latest surveillance tech. And in each room, the most celebrated and well known bugger of them all: Harry Caul. Fans gush over him and competitors with inferiority complexes beg him to enter business with them. Harry builds his own tech, and disdains all on the floor at the show, which begs the question of why he’s there in the first place. Of course the answer is a few lines back in my most celebrated man sentence, something that Harry’s false modesty would never let him acknowledge.

The Conversation is a textbook example of why the notion that technology should not play a prominent role in film or novels, because it might date them, is so wrong. It doesn’t matter that the tech is dated — the constant shots of film reels while Harry floats through space examing his moral axis are eerie regardless of the fact we haven’t used cassette tapes in 25 years. They become ghostly and ethereal, artifacts out of time, not behind it. Moreover, the privacy concerns and wanton exploitation that lurk both below and above the movie’s surface are cogent and still relevant.

Lastly, but probably not most importantly, a twist at the end reveals Harry was totally wrong — the lovers were not truly in danger. Something entirely different was afoot. The film discards its original moral center and becomes the degeneration of an isolated loner. There’s horror movie beats, a toilet overflowing with blood; final shots nothing but a portrayal of over-observed paranoia as Harry literally rips up his apartment’s floorboards in search of a bug.