Sunday, September 11, 2011

"Mortgage Cat"

We arrive at our house and we celebrate: it is our own piece of land and sky. We are worried about debt but we remain hopeful, my wife more than I because she has always been optimistic.

Because the house has many nooks and crannies it takes two weeks to find the previous owner's cat, which we'd hoped had died. This creature, a tabby with glossy fur and no name, is the legal embodiment of debts which we are required to assume. It is easy to love a cat, but one cannot become attached to the physical manifestation of debt, so we feed it but refuse to play with it. It is not allowed to sleep with us.

We acquire knick-knacks and furniture and we are pleased with our purchases, but every night the cat howls at something we can't see. Lack of sleep and the complaints of the neighbours force us to buy a smaller house for the cat. Our lawyer assures us that this is our best option, but he is also the lawyer for the cat, so we don't entirely trust him. We cannot afford a lawyer of our own. Our money goes toward tending the houses and buying a lot of kibble.

The cat is young and could live twenty years, long enough to outlast the university careers of our newly-born children. They are not allowed to visit the cat lest our legal situation become complicated: if the children ever feed it, they are required to share a portion of the debt which the cat represents, saddling them with responsibilities they are too young to handle.

The lawyer had given us a paper which certified the cat was sterile, but when kittens begin urinating on our front porch we realize the uncertainty of chemical sterilization. We are not allowed to touch the kittens without permission, which our lawyer refuses to grant, even after our own children die overseas in the Infant Wars. The kittens become our heirs. We must provide for them and their offspring, and rather than look at them every day we send them to subsequent and much smaller houses that we buy for them in the suburbs.

Our first home, the most beautiful one, we bequeath to the kittens. We move into the smallest home. It smells like urine and its furniture is scratched, and there are scraps of fur everywhere. It is hard to stand up because the rooms are so tiny.

Shortly afterward, and with no explanation, the houses burn down and our tragedy ends. We rent a bachelor apartment because we are too old to start over again. At night we are haunted by small burning kittens and their smoldering toys, which they jangle into and out of our one and only closet.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Three Young Men Address the Complexities of Power Over Lunch

ALAN: You should've seen that hippie guy last night at Phil's!

BRAD: What a pussy!

ALAN: He was all "Wah, wah, wah," we kicked his ASS.

JOE: I wish I'd gone to Phil's.

BRAD: Remember that dude with the beer?

JOE: Yeah, we're like, "You wanna fight?" BAM!

BRAD: That was great.

JOE: And this morning, that guy yelling at me about his shirt.

BRAD: What a pussy!

JOE: I was like "Yeah, you want your shirt?" BAM!

{Cel phone rings}

JOE: That's my landlord again.

ALAN: Put it on speakerphone.

LANDLORD: Hello, Joe?

JOE: Dude! What's up!

LANDLORD: I've been trying to get ahold of you, Joe.

JOE: Hey! I'm a dude, I don' up dudes and just say "Howya doin'?"

LANDLORD: You're in big trouble unless you come over here today and give me the money you owe me.

JOE: Don't make me hate you, buddy. We'll talk on Monday or something.

LANDLORD: Hate you? Joe, we're coming AFTER you.

JOE: Ha! You'll have to find me first!

LANDLORD: That won't be any problem. We'll find you, we'll take you to court, we'll f*ck you up for damages, we'll f*ck up your credit's easy stuff, Joe. We do it all the time.

JOE: You don't have my signature on NOTHIN', bro.

LANDLORD: We've got the lease.

JOE: You ain't got NOTHIN', bro! See ya!

{Hangs up}

ALAN: Dude, you're f*cked.

JOE: Really?

ALAN: You signed a f*ckin' LEASE.

JOE: Yeah...

ALAN: He takes you to court, you're SCREWED.

BRAD: You better go over there right now and pay him.

JOE: Yeah.


JOE: I wish I could just BEAT HIM UP.

"The Dancehall"

After Lou paid off his debts he went to the cheaper bars, the ones without pretty girls. He got into a drunken fight over a game of pool but nobody cared because he didn't hurt anybody, he just pushed and yelled a lot. In another place, however, he tried to steal a bottle of whiskey and got hit in the face by a bouncer. He spent the weekend in jail, nursing his eye and playing checkers with the two fat cops who were sometimes nice to him.

He was sober when he got out. His monthly cheque was waiting in his mailbox and he knew he couldn't handle the really cheap bars, at least not right now, so he cashed the cheque and went to the dancehall.

The girl with the orange dress was on the floor, easy to spot. This was the woman who Lou liked. She was an exaggerated pin-up, just this side of ridiculous, a starved man's fantasy after years in barracks, hospital wards, and drunk tanks. His buddy Corman had said "Nobody looks like that for real," but he and Corman weren't friends anymore.

Smiling in the toothy, inappropriate way she did when she danced with somebody, the woman was clutching the back of a thug who swayed awkwardly beside the stage. She deserved better than the veterans and dock workers, Lou had decided. Better than the customers who were barely more respectable than him with his scuffed shoes and his frayed suit jacket.

Lou felt like he was spinning and his mouth was dry. He wobbled to the bar, timing it so he could cross paths with her -- Suzette, her name was -- and she put her hand over her eye and said "elegant shiner!" while swaying into the restroom. He touched his face and looked sideways into the bar mirror, where he could see the thug lighting a cigarette and watching him.

Later, after a few drinks, Lou had stopped thinking about his eye and the thug and he was looking straight into the mirror, watching the girl in the bursting orange dress dance in a haze behind the bottles.

"Everybody loves Suzette," said the bartender. He leaned close and Lou could smell his toothpaste. "She's a kook, though."

"How so?"

"Says she's from Mars and came here by accident. Says she's going home on the next flight out of here." The bartender shrugged. "Everybody knows she's a kook."

"Nothing surprises me," said Lou, "I just got out of jail."

"You should have taken a shower first." Apparently this was the last drink Lou would get here.

He managed to grab the girl's arm on his way out. "I hear you're from outer space," he said, and the thug punched him right below the ear, professional. After that, in the drunk tank, the two fat cops held his hat just out of reach while Lou jumped up and tried to grab for it.

Monday, September 05, 2011

"The Pick-Up"

I didn't see anything interesting in the stores and I didn't have any money. When I talked to the boy at the shoe store he kept rearranging his shoes and he said, "Shouldn't you go home and have dinner?"

I sat in the coffee shop. I held my textbook open just like I was reading it and watched businessmen coming in out, their suits with little creases in them, pants sweaty around their crotches because of the heat. I sat in the black shadow of the investment bank that was visibly moving across my table, feeling my own sweat drying between my shoulder blades and between my breasts

I read for a while. My legs were stiff and tingling and my neck was getting sore, and there was a man standing at my table who said, "Good book?"

I nodded. "It's just regular biology. I forgot my highlighter."

His suit was like the others, but so fresh it looked like it had just come off the hanger. "You can have some of this if you want it," he said, gesturing with his coffee cup. "I only bought it so I could talk to you." As if for inspection he lifted his hands so I could see his clean fingernails, the little pink cuticles. He smelled like the seats in an orange Volkswagon car.

My own fingernails needed clipping, I remembered.

We crept outward in his car, the windows rolled up and the AC blasting. He played '60s rock too loud on the radio and his knuckles were tense, his hand jerking the gearshift.

"What do you do for a living?" I asked. He hadn't looked at me since I'd gotten into the car. He was an excellent driver. He was scrupulous about the right-of-way. "I'm an Biology major," I said. "Third year."

He nodded. "I do financing. Financial stuff. Banking." He didn't answer any other questions.

By the time we'd pulled into his driveway my face was hot and my jaw had a tough knot in it. It was hard to recognize anything without my glasses on, but I thought I knew where I was. I tripped over one of the shrubs beside his porch. "Careful," he said. "Jesus, don't worry."

Everything was orderly in the front hallway. He walked through every room of the ground floor, yelling "Dora? Dora?" while I waited by the door. There was no answer.

"Go upstairs," he said, and walked around the rooms again. He hadn't loosened his tie or taken off his dress shoes.

All the carpets on the second floor showed the runners of a vacuum. I found an office and a nursery and then the master bedroom, a place like a museum. A woman's silky nightgown was over the back of a chair in front of a mirror, a table with hairbrushes and some pictures.

I took off my running shoes and belt and jeans, my awful tank top with the dolphin on it, my underwear. The room was cold with central air conditioning and I lay on top of the plush quilt, mostly naked. When I began to shiver I moved down under the covers and pulled my socks off and held them in my hands.

The traffic was going quiet outside. I looked up at the white whirls of plaster that nobody ever noticed, and my body began to warm up under the covers.

Keyboard Expressiveness

I enjoyed this "Brooklyn Organ Synth Orchestra" clip of "Tubular Bells" so much that I eventually bought the song. Have a look:

As interesting as it is to see all these organs and synths at work, I'm always struck by how RELIEVED I am when the good old straightforward piano comes in at the end, bringing with it a warmth and depth that the rest of the song lacks. It gives me goosebumps! Even compared to the organs, the piano somehow sounds more EXPRESSIVE.

This has started me wondering: is the piano REALLY more expressive than a Hammond organ or an Omnichord? Is it more capable of conveying emotion than any other keyboard instrument?

That really does seem to be the case in THIS song, but that may have something to do with the relative skill of the player (Natasha Bartolf has obviously spent a lot of time with the piano so she may have more of a "connection" to it than -- perhaps -- Natalie Weiss with the Stylophone). Also, some of the instruments in the video ARE notably limited...that's part of their charm.

So I started thinking about synth virtuosos, the men and women who have spent their lives dickering with synthesizers. Manfred Mann has certainly bemoaned the lack of expressiveness in modern keyboards, but it's hard to compare his synth performances with virtuoso piano because he tends to use monophonic instruments. Bernie Worrell's more extravagant keyboard solos sound a bit farty these days. Thomas Dolby's synths are warmer than most, but still revel in a certain "coldness." Richard Tandy relies more on novelty than anything else.

I haven't looked into this enough. Is there something unique about the piano's ability to "express" the music that comes out of it, far beyond a pitch bend and a mod wheel?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Cooverthon: "Ghost Town"

Robert Coover had dabbled with "trapped in a genre" stories before, but "Ghost Town" (1998) was the first time he extended the concept to a novel.

The genre in question is the Western, and "Ghost Town" has it all: shootouts, train robberies, gambling, cattle rustlers, Indians, loyal horses, and a climactic hanging. The protagonist is a nameless gunman who has been wandering through the desert for an unknown length of time. He stumbles upon the Ghost Town, which embodies all the classic Western cliches...and it's a bad place for a lone gunman to hang around in.

The townsfolk are a constantly shifting mish-mash of characteristics; they swap injuries, hairstyles, and body types as the book goes on, particularly the town's deputy, who undergoes a steady transformation from one page to the next. The buildings in the town shift in a similar way, with buildings moving from place to place as the plot requires.

There are only two females in town: the dancehall girl and the schoolmarm. The protagonist, of course, is constantly defending himself against the former and trying to win the esteem of the latter...and because this is a Coover novel, he suffers constant humiliation and can never live up to the standards that others require of him: he is never brave enough, never smart enough, never suave enough, or -- conversely -- never enough of a rogue. The lone gunman fails again and again and again.

And hence my first real fatigue in this Cooverthon: I'm sick of the repeated humiliation of his protagonists. He always brings them to the brink of success -- often extending the scene to ridiculous lengths -- only to have them fall flat on their faces, worse off than ever before. There's a moment in "Ghost Town" when the gunman seems to have finally won the heart of the schoolmarm, and even though his success seemed guaranteed I KNEW Coover would pull the rug out from under him.

The fact that the "rug pulling" is always done in a surprising and inventive way does not alter the fact that it all gets a bit tedious. Coover simply cannot allow his heroes to win...they can't even get a GLIMPSE of happiness without being slapped in the face. Granted, his more straightforward novels give us more satisfyingly mixed character arcs, but these "I'm stuck in a nightmarish world" books always follow the same trajectory. And that's annoying.

But still, "Ghost Town" is a fun read, with everything getting jumbled up as though it were a movie set, and some of the more unsettling moments in any Coover book (the gore is notably exaggerated here). There's also an enhanced surrealism to events that contrasts nicely with the grittiness of the situations themselves.

NOTE: In some ways, "Ghost Town" revisits Coover's play "The Kid," which appeared in "A Theological Position" (1972). It has the same collection of anonymous characters and the same tendency to "flash back" to notable past events, something unique to this book and to the play. I suspect that the long list of dedications at the beginning of "Ghost Town" are to actors who appeared in some performance of "The Kid," assuming it was ever performed at all.

Typical Cooverisms: Humiliated protagonist, confusion of time and geography, bawdy puns, a penis exposed for an extended period of time, a woman who "digs at" her crotch. But even this far into his career, he's still inventing new elements which continue to surprise the reader, even if some of the conceits are getting a little old.

Adventures in Collingwood (Saturday August 20, 2011)

This journey would have taken days in a wagon or on a horse, but we spend two hours in our car, heading north along the escarpment. We drive between the ranks of lazy high-spired wind turbines and the bodies of dead porcupines, down the mountainside and into a land of big farms and small villages,  thunderclouds overhead.

Collingwood is hosting jazz but the storm moves in and the musicians run for cover. We eat food on the only patio table immune to rain. Soon we are sitting in a river and the waiter periodically tips the awning to preempt a downpour. Soaked shoppers huddle from the threat of lakefront lightning.

The storm retreats momentarily. We drive out to the famous grain elevator and explore the wet loading bays, our hair standing on end in a way that is both comical and scary. A loon darts underwater and reappears an impossible distance away, and he does this over and over, a game he plays for tourists.

Up Blue Mountain in the pounding rain which threatens to wash us back down the muddy bike trails. Our scenic view is of gray slopes and distant mist. Back down the mountain, we visit the artificial Village, a mirage, a magical entertainment tower which intimidates humans and engineers. Near the bathrooms, the wobbling mercury bubble inside a broken fire alarm is a mystery revealed to me.

Beach. The rain has stopped but people find no joy on a suddenly-chilly overcast day. We roll up our clothes and walk through the waves, shuffling over mud and rocks to a picnic table surrounded by tidewater. A joyful dog stumbles over our buried feet which swarm with minnows. Far off: a flat island covered with weeds, a Canadian flag its only vertical feature. When the tide goes out we leave.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Cooverthon: "Briar Rose"

If "Briar Rose" (1996) appeared in a collection of short stories, I would probably appreciate it more. There is something about a "book" which implies depth and weight. "Briar Rose," sadly, holds neither of these things, and it's the only Coover book that I previously owned but which I never bothered to finish. Much like "Spanking the Maid" (1982) it's what everybody assumes Coover always does, but seems -- when compared against the rest of his work -- lightweight and sort of frivolous.

It shares the same structure as "Spanking the Maid," a narrative which shifts focus between two protagonists (the Prince and Sleeping Beauty) as they repeat the same actions endlessly without ever achieving their goals. The Prince wants to rescue Sleeping Beauty, but he's trapped as much by the briar hedges as he is by his doubts: is he the one? Is she the one? Is he accomplishing his tasks properly?

Sleeping Beauty, likewise, is enduring a hundred-year sleep in the company of a good/evil fairy. The fairy tells her stories about all the possible Princes and the possible resolutions to the fairy tale, invariably terrible. Usually these hypothetical princes are already married, and their wives kill Sleeping Beauty and eat her. Sometimes the princes wake her up only after having fathered several children by her while she was sleeping. Some princes only want her property, or they turn into monsters when they kiss her.

Every second (large-print, small-margin) page is basically a resumption of the tale with a new twist. This is Coover's "phantasmagoria" approach, which reads like a fever dream but -- sadly -- has little else to recommend it, especially when you've already read his similar short stories in "Pricksongs and Descants" (1969) and "A Night at the Movies" (1987).

If you have a burning love for fairy tale deconstruction, this could be a good book (in the same way that "Spanking the Maid" has been cited as the ultimate text for S&M devotees), but otherwise it's Coover at his laziest. It lacks the invention and passion that he injects into better examples of this style (eg. "The Magic Poker" and "The Babysitter"), and also lacks the satire and political consciousness of Angela Carter's fairy tale treatments.

"Pinocchio in Venice" was dedicated to Carter just a few years before, so maybe this was an homage of some kind, though Coover had tackled fairy tales before ("The Door," "The Gingerbread House") and would come back to them again in "Stepmother."

Typical Coover themes in "Briar Rose": Repetitious scenario with disconnected geography & time, characters can never succeed because the rules of the scenario are unspoken or more complicated than first considered, scatology, idealized situations become disgusting/horrific when subject to real life.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Cooverthon: "John's Wife"

Robert Coover's novels tend to come in one of two formats: either they're teeny-tiny books with huge text and wide margins (glorified short stories), or they're larger books with minuscule text, non-existent margins, and the smallest possible space between the lines (deceptively epic tomes). The fact that Coover tends to have a high "bulky paragraph" to "terse dialog" ratio makes the latter type of book particularly long.

"John's Wife" (1996) is ENTIRELY composed of bulky paragraphs. It never settles down and it never lets you rest. Its 420 pages feel like twice that many, and in a more sensibly formatted book they probably would be. But there's so much invention in it that you'll never feel the drag...unless you become hopelessly lost, which is possible, especially the first time through.

First, the structure: "John's Wife" is a book-length string of big paragraphs. Each paragraph focuses on a particular character, and the story flows between paragraphs as the characters encounter each other, think about each other, or when the plot naturally moves in that direction. These paragraphs come in unbroken sections about sixty pages long, but the separations between these sections -- a simple double space -- doesn't seem to serve any purpose. The story is one shifting character focus from page 1 to page 423.

These characters all live in a quaint midwestern American town, and -- as you'd expect in a small town -- they all have some connection with each other: parents, children, spouses, workmates, golfing buddies, drinking partners, and the professionals they deal with (a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, the newspaper editor, the town photographer, etc.)

The town's biggest booster is John, a hedonistic businessman, son of one of the founding fathers, frat boy, continually shaping the town by buying up and then over-developing property for maximum profit. John is the strongest motivating force in the town...

...with the exception of his wife. She's nameless, simply "John's Wife." The center of everything. Beloved by everyone. Half the men in town are hopelessly in love with her, and most of the women admire and respect her. Considering the book has about fifty major characters -- explored serially and organically as the book goes on -- there's a lot of "John's Wife worship" in those pages.

The curious thing is that John's Wife is the only notable character who is -- quite pointedly -- never explored. Everybody talks about her but she never earns a paragraph for herself. We learn about every other character's hopes, dreams, activities, and darkest secrets...but not her. She appears and (literally) disappears, setting things in action and then wandering into another paragraph to motivate somebody else. But she's the only person in town whose head we never get a look inside.*

What's "John's Wife" about? It's about everything that the characters care for: love, sex, power, life, hatred, art, philosophy, and survival. It's about the things that motivate these townie characters: infatuation for John's Wife, lust for revenge, craving for affection, dark regrets which cannot be forgotten. The novel is, in short, about the deep-down things that obsess us.

The first section of the book is an amazing study of how people motivate themselves to get through the day -- the sort of thing Coover wrote so truthfully about in "The Origin of the Brunists" (1966). We learn how all these characters know each other, the common touchstones they share (John's stag party in particular), and their own personal foibles which roar around in their brains: housewife Veronica, for example, is unable to forget the fetus she aborted when she was a teenager, and unable to forgive the man who fathered the child. Marge is driven by her need to finally win a contest -- any contest -- against John. Ellsworth (the newspaper man) is using his unwritten novel to try to understand the relationship between artists, models, and audiences. Poor teenage Jennifer has a hopeless crush on John's business partner and fantasizes about running away with him.

This is fascinating enough, but after 160 pages the town begins to unravel. It begins with the strange behaviour of John's Wife herself: sometimes she disappears when people aren't looking at her, leaving nothing but her car (or her clothes) behind. Latent murderers begin to make all-too-serious designs on the lives of others. Ellsworth is terrified to discover a new character lurking in his book's pages, and Stu's dead wife -- who he killed years ago -- reappears as a ghastly and blazing-eyed ghost. Meanwhile Pauline -- the novel's most tragic character -- is growing to a surprising size in the photographer's studio...

I don't want to tell you any more because part of the book's joy is the shock at every new twist: the way the yearnings and regrets of these otherwise normal characters become hideous reality as the book goes on. Eventually time and geography begin to collapse, and as an all-too-familiar monster finds herself under siege in the middle of Settler's woods, the town goes absolutely bonkers. Events move to their natural end in a way that only Coover could manage. Fire, disaster, storm, accident, death, destruction. And a huge part of the forest soaked with urine.

The book ends with all of the characters newly matured...the town has healed and so have the people who live there. They're not better than they were -- some of them are in a new kind of private hell -- but everybody seems to know a bit more about themselves. John continues to buy and renovate property, John's Wife returns and brings everything back to a state of normality, and the impossible events of the previous (day? week? month?) recede into the legends and tall tales that make a town unique.

"John's Wife" is a non-stop burst of creativity: characters, events, collisions, distortions, it never ends, and -- now that I've read it a second time and I have the characters straight in my head -- I think it's Robert Coover's masterpiece. It has the best of his realistic writing, and also the best of his impossible stuff, with both extremes perfectly meshed in an utterly flawless structure.

That said, it's a damn frustrating book, especially the first time through. It's easy to mix characters up and forget where they've been, dulling the ironic beauty of events seen through dozens of different eyes. It's also easy to lose sight of the subtle and beautiful surprises that are lost in the surrounding bombast: the really complex and unusual stories of Corny and Beans, for example; the former one of the most rich characters in the book, and the latter a strange and significant footnote that the casual reader will miss altogether.

Common Coover touches in the book: the warping of time and geography, lots of different spouses screwing around on each other, toilets referred to as "stools," dense meditations on art and philosophy (though nicely spaced out this time), a comical cowboy character, women with big butts, metaphoric darkness/blindness, lewd puns, and outrageous pantomime.

* With the exclusion of the mysterious "Sassy Buns" who wreaks male havoc during the extended climax of the book, and who may be a sort of "Anti-John's Wife." Or something.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Come Out of That Kelly Pool!

Okay, these Womrath's advertisements are lots of fun. From November 29, 1930, this one tells us that reading books is WAY more enjoyable than any of the (then-) current fads, including Kelly pool.

Stop falling through that auction bridge...quit trying to walk into that full-house on your inside straight...don't leave your footprints in that sand-trap. Roll your bones in another alley! Save your quarter...only a fourth of a dollar...for a gamble where you're sure to detectives get their the great got that way...Use your two-bits to rent a book from Womrath's...for a week...