Friday, October 26, 2012

Pass The Invisibility Cloak, Please

Let me up I've had enough!

I revile presidential elections. In fact we have a general policy here in Limboland not to engage in the Dark Arts or to grant membership to the likes of He Who Shall Not Be Named, Malfoy and his ugly albino family, Beatrix LeStrange or anyone who's name ends in x, or any of those bottom-sniffing muggle-haters (though it might be fun to have the V-man around when he's baby-sized and trying to make his comeback - we could toss and kick him around like a football). This eternal ban from Limboland goes for the Mordor crew as well: Sauron, Saruman, the orcs and the uruk-hai, the Balrog, the Nazgul and the king of the slimebuckets Gollum. And no Imperial Stormtroopers either. Jabba the Hut...well, ok, but just so long as you got Princess Lea in a bikini on a chain.

The ban extends to presidential candidates as well, including, unfortunately our erstwhile and sincere chief executive who keeps getting his wiener wrapped around his neck despite how much money we throw at him.

It is precisely the money throwing, or, more succinctly, the money throwing away, flushed down the toilet that drives me into the depths of despair, or should I say to the sewage treatment plant. Every goddamn day Barack and his friendly flunkies are scavenging for dough - multiple emails in every account. I'm me. I'm Henry Griffin. I'm Hack. I'm Paco. I'm Mrs. Doubtfire...they always find their man.

The numbers are obscene, the product - a Mitt ad, a Barack ad, doesn't matter they're equally obscene. Ask any American if they think it's an inordinate waste of money, time and energy. "Yes! Disgusting!" They'll all agree. Just imagine if those resources were funneled into something cool. Something constructive. Something life saving.

But hey...don't tell me how to spend my money, right? It's my constitutional right to spend it exactly the way I want, and if I have several million lying around, or maybe I just have to exercise a few stock options, or sell a few shares, and then I can pump it into my candidate of choice - the one that scratches not only my back but my balls as well hey and while you're down there would you mind...yeah that's it...just...uh I love the constitution!

Imagine for a second all that money being thrown into candidates marketing coffers as if they were NFL teams. Who profits? The media conglomerates and everybody that works for them, the production companies, the advertising agencies, the PR agencies and all their people, the manufacturers of the machines that deliver the noxious lies. Who profits? Anderson Cooper. That bald-headed cornholing John Malkovich look-allike Carville, The bloggers, pundits, seers, bookies and pimps. The money is swirling around the media industry like a fucking tornado - you think they would like to see some sort of control over campaign spending? Ha!

Democracy has been on the auction block for some time, but this election really brings it all down home. We're reminded of it with every MoveOn email, every plea from every political entity that exists. If we could just keep the elections going full time, keep investing, grow the business, we might be able to wrap it all up in a sweet little IPO and sell it back to...the people?

See why I hate presidential politics? See why here in Limboland it is verboten to speak of such evil things? Harry Potter are you out there? Harry? Hermione? Ron? Could y'all saddle up Buckbeak and get over here with a few spells and if you don't mind one extra large invisibility cloak?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Blame, Rev. 2

 I know little buddies. This shit is no fun. But every once in a great while I have something to say - this post is just a refinement of the thoughts I served up last week. 

I admit that I serve up my fair share of offensive, sensationalist garbage and we usually don't associate offensive, sensationalist garbage with intelligence -- particularly if it's coming from Limboland! (Right Lap Doggy?) So why do I think The Corrections belongs in the offensive, sensationalist garbage department? That's exactly what I harp on below , but let me add one more thing: the reason I try to give Franzen credit for creating a narrator that angers us with his relentless cynicism is because I agree with the point he is trying to make. We're surrounded with opportunities to make our own lives as empty and meaningless as the Lamberts. Similarly, artist's like Jonathan Franzen have the opportunity to show us the way out. 

Sinclair Lewis, John Updike, Richard Ford, Richard Russo - all these guys are pretty proficient at painting bleak pictures of American culture or the lack thereof, but they always leave us with a little hope one way or the other.  (For those of you that have read Hack, my POV is no surprise.)

So if The Corrections gets you down, don't despair! There's always Limboland!

Blame, Rev 2.

I woke up the other day thinking about Gary Lambert, the downtrodden middle-aged corporate family man who could have almost been me ten years ago, but who instead is one of Jonathan Franzen’s unfortunate characters in The Corrections. I realized that, like Gary, I was nauseous and depressed. I also realized that my woeful condition was Gary’s fault. Gary and his entire pathetic family of Lamberts, and everyone that crosses their path in The Corrections, because besides being a masterful work of fiction The Corrections is one nauseating and depressing read.

I had been reading The Corrections slowly, taking long pauses to work on corporate drudgery which, by comparison, provided a sense of purpose that was relatively uplifting. So, looking for ways to get engaged, I started to focus on Franzen’s execution: the techniques and skills he so effectively employs to make his depressing narrative work.

The first thing that caught my eye that Franzen employs throughout The Corrections, is the use of what Joan Silber describes as “switchback time”:

“…a zigzag movement back and forth among time frames, the method of a fiction that alternates different ‘eras’ (like the deliberate swing of a mountain road that carries us this way and that when a straight line can’t do it.)” (Joan Silber, The Art of Time in Fiction, p. 45)

The Corrections is the story of five individual lives - Alfred and Enid Lambert and their children Chip, Gary and Denise – in the months leading up to Christmas around the turn of the most recent century. If there is a main plot it revolves around the possible gathering of this completely dysfunctional group at the family home in St. Jude, Kansas. Woven into the main thread are both sub-stories happening in real time and “switchbacks”. But even though a sub-story or a particular event may be happening in the past, Franzen’s narrator tells each story in the present tense, as if it is happening now. By keeping his eye on the action he avoids “telling” the past and keeps the narrative in constant motion back and forth though time. In the hands of a less-skilled writer this present tense rendering of main events leading off into a maze of past events and then brought back to the present moment could end up reading like a bowl of narrative spaghetti. With Franzen, we get the sense that even though the story may seem to consist of many strands it’s really all one big, consistent, if somewhat directionless noodle. So it is Franzen’s narrative skill, along with the consistent use of tone and language, and the balance of dialogue and exposition, that provides an accessible foundation for a broad audience of varying levels of sophistication. Add to that the peppy, inventive use of lively vocabulary, a comfortable variation of line length, precise attention to the important supportive detail, a natural infusion of profanity and we’ve got a contemporary blockbuster. Clearly that has been the general view of a vast majority of readers. 

And yet I could barely make it through. I would read, shake my head, grit my teeth in anger. What is the point, I asked, besides making us marvel at the gorgeous, lyrical prose, laughing at these bumbling character’s who at times seemed to be reading from Hollywood film scripts? What is the point, besides claiming to be holding a mirror up to the ugly American People and our ugly American Culture?

The only answer that I’ve found to be workable is that those are exactly the questions that Franzen poses, and he poses the questions by creating this omniscient narrator who, far from being an objective third party hired to report on the action, is himself a troubled soul who can’t help but infuse everything - every gesture, every expression, every movement of air, everything the characters do, think or feel – with a nauseating cleverness:  a simile, a metaphor, a turn of phrase, a sleight of hand, a spelling-bee vocabulary word or, worse, a character whipping an inscrutable scientific theory out of their ass. Franzen’s narrator is himself the ugly one, the pessimist who would have us believe his bleak rendering contemporary American culture. 

We are warned early on that this story is intended to be a gross exaggeration of “real” life. In the beginning of the section entitled “The Failures” one of the principals (Chip) gives a seventeen line speech in the middle of a harried scene after his girlfriend, Julie, walks out on him right as his parents arrive for lunch. In this supposedly impromptu burst of insight, Chip concludes that he “is personally losing the battle with a commercialized, medicated, totalitarian modernity right this instant,” Immediately, red flags start popping up across the audience because everybody knows that, while entertaining, no real human being, nobody you’ve ever known or will know will ever speak that way in that situation. Normal people just don’t talk like that. When Franzen’s narrator turns the phoniness volume up to 10 in the first 1000 words it becomes pretty obvious that nothing from this point forward is to be taken seriously, because these characters aren’t not supposed to portray real people!

To the narrator though, these people – caricatures, really -- are his own grim reality. They’re his homeys. Some are perhaps not as stupid, malicious, diseased, depressed, drunk, cynical, and dishonest as others but they’re all just as generally snarky and unhappy as our narrator. This narrator has issues – he’s having a really bad time of it -  and the Lambert family just happens to get caught in his sights as symbols of everything that is selfish, small-minded, trite and pathetic in our society. The blatant contempt the narrator has for the Lambert family and the characters that buzz around their disintegrating hive is almost comical. Indeed the only way to survive the breakneck narrative is to remind yourself that we were warned right up front that this was all in fun, for real people do not generally behave as these people do. Then you can laugh, for awhile at least. The humor stumbles when the narrator continues to belabor the hopelessness of the situation ad nauseum with his clever trifles.  

When I look at the narrator’s supreme arrogance and contempt he has for his characters as Franzen’s way of illustrating the general lack of compassion in American society, I am able to build some meaning into this overall reading experience. Unfortunately this doesn’t make the book any less depressing. My guess is that any reader left standing after a few hundred pages of relentless below-the-belt blows to the psyche would qualify for an appearance in The Corrections II.  But if we take Franzen at face value and eliminate the possibility that author and narrator are not one in the same, we’re left with a meaningless portrait of a dysfunctional family in a dysfunctional society, completely devoid of love. If there is any sign of love, it is the awkward fawning that the demented and crippled Alfred attempts show for his intellectual but sex-crazed son Chip at the very end of the book. But even the tender moments are befouled with anxiety and distrust, thanks to our narrator who keeps us abreast of what the characters are really thinking, versus what we might surmise from their actions. Even when Alfred can no longer express his disdain for everybody and everything, our narrator spares no detail in describing the indignity that Alfred must be feeling. My exhaustion by now is on par with poor Alfred, and I am more than ready for the narrator to “put an end to it.”

Ultimately it is Enid’s revenge, in the final pages, that encapsulates the mean spirit shared by the members of the Lambert family. If it is Franzen’s intention for the reader to stand up at the end and shout “go Enid!” with a hearty fist pump, he craters that intention by turning Enid into a woman incapable of forgiveness and compassion and whose only interest is to show her evil husband how wrong he has been about everything. But if we’re to understand our narrator correctly, this is exactly what we should expect. Nobody get’s out of The Corrections truly corrected. According to the narrator, American culture and the mean shortsighted selfish robots that define it are way too far gone for any real correction. Besides, corrections are by definition temporary, as are, fortunately for Jonathan Franzen, narrators. Because if this is the way Jonathan Franzen honestly feels about his fellow humans, he must be the loneliest person on earth.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sojourns and Compendiums - A Literary Event

Sojourns and Compendiums: 
 Book Your Passage at Book Passage in Corte Madera, for this Delightful Day of Travel Through Literature
Saturday, November 10
1:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m

Join Harper Davis Publishers as they celebrate the release of their latest titles in a delightful day of Travel Through Literature hosted at Book Passage in Corte Madera. From as far away as Athens, Greece, to as close as Mill Valley, California, each title presented is your passport to a fascinating region and a captivating read. This event offers you an extraordinary voyage, and you don’t even need to pack! Join us for crafts and photography, regional foods and music, all of which will enhance your appreciation of the locales featured in the readings of both new and familiar books by six spectacular authors:

Patricia V. Davis, Harlot’s Sauce: A Memoir of Food, Family, Love, Loss, and Greece  (Athens, Greece)

Cathy Edgett and Jane Flint, Breast Strokes: Two Friends Journal Through the Unexpected Gifts of Cancer (Mill Valley, California)

Jeb Stewart Harrison, Hack (Marin County, CA; Tubac, AZ; Pinecrest, CA)

Gilbert Mansergh, The Marvelous Journals of Miss Virginia Pettingill (Gloucester, Massachusetts)

Amanda McTigue, Going to Solace (The Blue Ridge Mountains)

Susanna Solomon, The Sheriff’s Calls in The Point Reyes Light (Point Reyes, California)

This event is free and open to the public, ages 12 and up. For information on these titles and authors, visit:

Saturday, October 13, 2012


 I’ve been feeling a little more down than usual lately and, as always when I’m supine in the dark on the cellar floor, I scour the universe for reasons. This is usually a chickie/agg exercise however, because I can never put my finger on whether it’s, for example, the depression (aka The Black Dog – see post “The Black Dog in the Kitchen with the Dentist") that is causing physical pain or is it the other way around? Or is it the meds I take for pain that cause depression? Or is it the food that causes the inflammation that causes the pain that cause the depression? I haven’t had any more than a single glass of wine at any one sitting for over year now. That’s pulling back from almost a fifth of sake almost every night. (Ugh. Wait a minute! No wonder I feel fuckin strange. Where's my sake?).

It might be because I just moved into a (potentially) gorgeous house on a long green double lot called Coon Hollow. Coon Hollow. Yep, gonna be firin’ up the still, pickin’ some geetars, fiddles, banjos, dobros, cuttin’ us up some chaw just a 5 minute walk from Stinson Beach, CA: 5 miles of pristine walking sand along the mighty Pacific just south of Point Baulinas and the Point Reyes National Seashore. There’s a small town with a real bar (as if I give a shit about bars), a convenience store, a couple of touristy gift shops,a bookstore, two art galleries,  a surf shop, a 4-start restaurant, a hippie health clinic, a deli, a post office and a fire station. It’s very much like Carmel never was or shall ever be, but the water is just as cold. I live here now with a beautiful woman who never whines, complains or asks me to do anything I don’t want to do, and my brown dog, Boo, who is constantly asking me to do things that I not only don’t want to do but can’t, because as I’ve said time and time again I am not a dog!

I wish I was a dog. I wish I was a dog  because dog’s can’t read, and therefore I would not be subjecting myself to the truly masterful fiction of Mr. Jonathan Franzen, who, if I understand it correctly from being properly corrected in The Corrections, being human in America is the last thing any-self respecting dog would want to be.

Thus my depression. I had been reading The Corrections slowly, at a dog’s pace, so I guess I wasn’t really reading much at all, since dog’s can’t read. Oh wait. Dammit! I’m not a dog. But if I were I was not exactly taking to it like a bone, because the only thing to bite into was this gorgeous, lyrical prose, with character’s reading from Hollywood filmscripts, and an almost scary command of the English language. It’s not as if we’re not warned this might be a bit vapid. In the beginning of the section entitled “The Failures” one of the principals (Chip) rants for 17 lines in the middle of an already rushed conversation that concludes with the idea that he “is personally losing the battle with a commercialized, medicated, totalitarian modernity right this instant,” Red flags start popping up out of the top of my head, right through the snowy rooftop, because everybody knows no real human being, nobody you’ve ever known or will know will ever speak that way. Normal people just don’t talk like that. When Franzen turns the volume up to 10 in the first 1000 words it becomes pretty obvious that nothing from this point forward is to be taken seriously, because these people aren’t to be mistaken for real people. What a relief!

After this epiphany I continue reading and the depression worsens. Now I’m reading about Gary, who is in major denial about his own depression, and his wife AND kids decides that they should start monitoring his drinking with a surveillance system in the kitchen! But wait! Does Franzen want us to believe that this could actually happen, that there are people that slimy? Of course not.

But by now the relentless cynicism and the suffocating snarkiness has completely drowned out all the awesome mastery of this gifted writer. Franzen’s effortless command of the fiction writer’s tools had me in slackjawed wonder after the first few pages – I knew this was gonna be important! But, like a Dirk Diggler in doe-eyed love with his giant dick, Franzen works it, and works it, and works it until the “wow” factor is more of an “enough already” plea. What starts as powerful cultural satire and stark insight into human behavior quickly degenerates into a flawlessly constructed circus of stupid people doing stupid things.

And that, my little limbolanders, is almost more depressing than this mean-spirited, cold-hearted indictment of contemporary American culture called The Corrections. And you, young Jonny, are to blame!

Break out the Dr. Seuss and hand me an ice cream sandwich! I’m turning over a new leaf!

Hey after you're done reading Hack, may I suggest you try something completely different: The Dark Lake by Anthea Jane Carson is some of the best self-published fiction I have yet to see. The main character and narrator, has a strange story to tell. But it's hard to tell what's stranger: the narrator, or her story. Weird creepy fun!