Thoughts on Norman Mailer’s The Spooky Art

THE SPOOKY ART is classic Mailer, meaning, if you take what he says with a grain of salt you’ll have a great time reading this book. He veers from cockiness to humility, from misogyny to pride, regret, bitterness, and nearly incomprehensible mysticism, all the while ragging on journalists, poets, and his fellow writers. He’s also critical of his own work. The prevailing mood, in fact, of this book is regretful: Mailer believes his generation failed to produce a great novel that defined America. There are favorable mentions of Steinbeck, Faulkner, Roth, and Updike (he’s not so sure about Hemingway), but where was that big novel that would be the final say on what it was like to be an American after WW2? It wasn’t HARLOT’S GHOST or ANCIENT EVENINGS, Mailer’s own biggest books, both of which he believes came out at the wrong time and were unjustly overlooked. It wasn’t THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG or ARMIES OF THE NIGHT either, the books that won him two Pulitzers, which were journalistic efforts and, he claims, easier to write than true fiction. He admits he had a hard time finding the story in his novels and wasted too much time on writing journalism instead. He also regrets debasing himself in the media, the lowest form of entertainment. His “wild man” persona, he claims, was only “5 to 10 percent” of him, the rest was work. Still, this persona looms large in the public’s mind.

I enjoyed the first part of this book the best. Mailer writes about the success of his first novel, THE NAKED AND THE DEAD, and how he struggled with his next two books. The remainder of THE SPOOKY ART consists mostly of old interviews, articles, forewords, reviews, and speeches he’s given, patched together into a disjointed, bewildering, and increasingly bitter narrative. In the penultimate chapter, Mailer briefly discusses a dozen or so writers (including Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, and Jonathan Franzen), finding fault with all of them.

Mailer warns that this is not a how-to guide on writing. It certainly isn’t a how-to guide on making friends in the writing business either. But then Mailer was a rabble-rouser, in his writing as much as in the media. Of his last book published during his lifetime, A CASTLE IN THE FOREST, he predicted people would be “livid,” and he was looking forward to the storm it would create.

In THE SPOOKY ART Mailer knows his best work is behind him. He predicts that some day a writer will appear who will be better than everyone who’s gone before him and who will write that elusive Great American Novel. Based on Mailer’s low opinion of other writers in general, he probably believes this person to be himself, reincarnated by way of the Egyptian ritual he describes so vividly in what he considered his magnum opus, ANCIENT EVENINGS.

Thank You, David Bowie

We didn’t listen to much music at home when I was a kid, so I had to venture out on my own. This was in the pre-internet days — at least, we didn’t have a computer with internet access at home. I did my research at the library, in hopelessly outdated issues of Rolling Stone and a Dutch magazine called OOR.

In town there were three record stores that sold CDs for today’s equivalent of $40. There was no Spotify, no Soundcloud. The only way to hear an album before shelling out $40 was to stand at the counter and listen on a pair of headphones while the store clerks stared at you with either impatience or total boredom.

The library had CDs I copied onto cassettes I bought at the drugstore. They didn’t have much of a selection, though, beyond what was popular in those days: Madonna, George Michael, Paul Young (that all-but-forgotten Michael Keaton lookalike not to be confused with Paul Simon or Neil Young). So one day I rode my bike to the next biggest town and there at the library stumbled upon ChangesOneBowie, an 11-track compilation of David Bowie songs from 1969 to 1976. It didn’t contain the only two Bowie songs I knew at the time — Let’s Dance and Magic Dance from the movie Labyrinth — but it did have Space Oddity, Changes, Ziggy Stardust, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, and Golden Years.

That album became my constant companion, my north star, my bible. Was it that, as a lonely kid in a small town I was dying to leave, I connected with Bowie’s outsider persona — his Major Tom, his starman waiting in the sky? Was it simply that his music was so heart-piercingly good?

My father didn’t approve of rock music, so I had to listen in my bedroom with the door closed and the volume turned down. Buying rock music was even worse: a crime equivalent to murdering your grandmother. In later years I collected all of Bowie’s work on CD and vinyl, but I never bought ChangesOneBowie. The cassette I lost somewhere along the way. I didn’t need it anymore. I was sold for life.

Trying to explain why you like a certain artist is like trying to explain why you prefer a certain kind of ice cream — it’s a nebulous, magical thing. Let it suffice that Sunday’s news of Bowie having died at the age of 69 was a tremendous shock. Just the Friday before I’d sat spellbound on the floor listening to Blackstar, his new album, letting my one-year-old daughter fend for herself for about 40 minutes.

I’m sad and shocked Bowie’s gone, but I’m also grateful he was here at all: to show a loner kid like me the way.

Thoughts on Stephen King’s Mr Mercedes

Mr MercedesStephen King is an institution. I know it, you know it, and he knows it. As far back as THE TOMMYKNOCKERS his novels have referenced his own work as though, in the fictional worlds he’s creating, there’s another bestseller author of scary novels named Stephen King who lives in Maine. THE TOMMYKNOCKERS referenced IT, THE SHINING, and THE DEAD ZONE. MR. MERCEDES also mentions IT, as well as Judas Coyne, the hero of his son Joe Hill’s debut novel, HEART-SHAPED BOX. (Hill included several nods to his father’s work – including IT – in his third book, NOS4A2.) And why not? You can’t dispute King’s prodigious output or sales figures. What’s more, you can’t dispute that he’s an engaging storyteller. This, more than anything, is why readers keep coming back to him.

I’ve recently been on somewhat of a Stephen King kick, having read 11/22/63, REVIVAL, and THE TOMMYKNOCKERS in quick succession. And now MR. MERCEDES. I had my doubts about this one. The story didn’t sound that interesting and I tend to not care for police procedurals, detective novels, or whatever you want to call them (a notable exception being LUSH LIFE by Richard Price). But the audiobook was read by Will Patton, who did some of my favorite audiobooks (LIGHT IN AUGUST, JESUS’ SON, TRAIN DREAMS) and whose performance proved once again to be masterful.

Did the story grip me? Not really. Did the characters? Not really. They included a typical sexually confused villain, a typical retired suicidal cop, and one of King’s favorites: a magical black person (see also: THE TALISMAN and THE STAND). Yet, I kept listening. King’s prose is so smooth and his pacing so clever that you want to know what happens next, even if none of it is particularly exciting. By the end, I was happy to be done with this particular story, but also eager enough to spend more time in Uncle Steve’s company to pick up the sequel, FINDERS KEEPERS.

Thoughts on Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers

TommyknockersThis used to be one of my favorite Stephen King books, along with Pet Sematary, The Shining, and Salem’s Lot. Those last two I reread in 2014 and didn’t like them as much as I remembered – I found them unnecessarily digressive and adverb-heavy. Yet, there’s something about reading an old Stephen King book… maybe it’s because I grew up on them, or because his post-1990s output has been so uneven (although he’s recently been on something of a roll: 11/22/63 is one of my all-time favorite King novels; Duma Key is great; Revival is perfectly enjoyable)… So I figured I’d try this one again.

In a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, King called The Tommyknockers “an awful book.” It’s too long, too weird, too derivative, too… not good. But it starts off surprisingly strong. Sure, 200 pages in, King loses himself (or his plot) in a long section concerning the town’s history and its inhabitants, but he quickly regains his footing until suddenly, 300 pages in, he has the entire town of Haven under his spell… as well as the reader.

There is something urgent about his writing here, something dreamlike and primeval. This was the last book he wrote before kicking his drug and alcohol habit, and addiction is what this story is about: an entire town locked into the paranoid, self-destructive clutches of addiction. But it’s also about cancer, and nuclear weapons, and zealotry, and Native American curses, and – yikes! – menstrual blood. Derry makes an appearance. So does Pennywise. And Johnny Smith from The Dead Zone. And King himself.

In that same Rolling Stone interview mentioned above, King speculates there’s probably a good 350-page novel hidden inside the current 700+ version of The Tommyknockers. That novel would probably be a lot saner, but also safer. And part of the joy of The Tommyknockers — for me at least — is the mad mess it is.

My Reading Year – 2015

My goal this year was to read at least 50 books. I keep a journal of the books I read and average about 35 books a year, so 50 was ambitious — especially considering I’m working on a book of my own and have a family and a full-time job. But I ended the year at 53 books total. Here are some of my favorites I read this year:

Little Sister Death – William Gay (what I thought)
Tree of Smoke – Denis Johnson
The Laughing Monsters – Denis Johnson (thoughts)
Nobody Move – Denis Johnson (okay, I was on a bit of a Denis Johnson kick this year…)
Already Dead – Denis Johnson (look, another one!)
11/22/63 – Stephen King (thoughts)
1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus – Charles C. Mann
The Eerie Silence – Paul Davies
The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu
The Dark Forest – Cixin Liu
Loitering – Charles D’Ambrosio
Martin Dressler – Steven Millhauser (thoughts)
Let Me Be Frank with You – Richard Ford
The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro (thoughts)
Wylding Hall – Elizabeth Hand

NRC Review: Know Your Beholder – Adam Rapp

I had not heard of Adam Rapp before reviewing his latest, Know Your Beholder, for the Dutch newspaper NRC, but I enjoyed this book immensely. The 4-star review that follows is in Dutch.

De onderstaande recensie verscheen op 11 december 2015 in NRC:

4 sterren

‘Wanneer je van jezelf een wetenschappelijk experiment maakt, is het moeilijk om de andere kant op te kijken.’ Dit zegt Francis Falbo, de agorafobische dertiger in Know Your Beholder, de nieuwe roman van Adam Rapp (1968). Falbo is al weken de deur niet uitgeweest. Hij gaat gekleed in een pyjama en een badjas en zijn baard ruikt naar ‘natte eekhoorn’. Hij woont op de zolder van het grote huis waarin hij is opgegroeid, dat is omgebouwd tot een verzameling woningen die hij verhuurt.

Terwijl de fictieve stad Pollard, in de staat Illinois, geteisterd wordt door de ergste sneeuwstorm in jaren, dompelt Falbo zich onder in het leven van zijn excentrieke huurders. Zoals het circusechtpaar wiens dochter spoorloos is verdwenen of een schilderes die Falbo overhaalt naakt te poseren. Wat klinkt als de set-up voor een melige sitcom, bewijst zich als een diepgaand relaas over hoe het leven uit elkaar kan vallen en weer opgebouwd kan worden. Wanneer de politie Falbo inschakelt om de ouders van het verdwenen meisje te bespioneren, ontdekt hij dat zij bijna alle sporen van hun dochter hebben gewist.

Falbo probeert zich te verstoppen achter de verhalen van zijn huurders, maar ontkomt niet aan zijn eigen verhaal: dat van een man die niet weet om te gaan met zijn verleden, zoals blijkt bij een pijnlijk bezoek van zijn ex-vrouw.

Know Your Beholder is een dagboek over, in Falbo’s woorden, ‘alle dingen die we moeten overleven. De lijst gaat maar door’. Doodgaan, scheiding, eenzaamheid, verdwijningen. Falbo noemt zichzelf ‘het equivalent van een koude, regenachtige dag’. Toch is dit geen zwartgallig boek. Adam Rapp schrijft vol gevoel over Falbo en zijn huurders, een groep lovable fuckups. ‘De maan is vol vanavond. Ik heb zitten kijken door mijn zolderraam. Zo helder dat je de schimmige depressies en breuklijnen kan zien. Haar spookachtige zeebodems en fantoomcontinenten. De wolkenloze, ijskoude lucht. Bevroren wintersterren. Astrale halfschaduw. Eindeloze, schitterende ruimte.’

Het sitcom-gevoel ontbreekt ook niet helemaal aan dit boek. Wanneer Falbo belooft naakt te zullen poseren, bestelt hij pillen die zijn penis groter moeten maken. Hij schakelt een professionele kidnapper in om een huurder uit huis te krijgen.

Dat Falbo op zolder woont is een metafoor: hij leeft in zijn hoofd. Maar als de sneeuwstorm voorbij is, moet hij weer naar buiten. In zijn huwelijk is hij ten prooi gevallen aan de ‘valse ether van het getrouwde leven’. Hij werd te huiselijk en durfde geen risico’s meer te nemen. Maar in de loop van Know Your Beholder brengen zijn ervaringen met zijn huurders – waar ook vandalisme, diefstal, inbraak en een sneeuwpop die zich op mysterieuze wijze verplaatst aan te pas komen – hem weer tot leven.

Home

The Dutch word for “homesickness” is “heimwee,” which comes from the German for “home pain” or “home sadness.” It is a stronger word than “homesickness” because it implies that there is a certain kind of pain or sadness inherent to longing. To want is to hurt.

Returning to work on a Monday morning after a vacation or something as simple as a long weekend at home with your family, you can despair so much it actually hurts.

The Dutch use “heimwee” to signify not only a longing for home, but for the past too. Home, then, is not purely a physical location but a state of being happy. Home is happiness.

This is what is meant when loved ones tell each other, “My home is wherever you are.”

Favorites of ’15

I don’t claim to be an authority on the best books, movies, songs, or TV shows of the year. The term “best,” I think, bears very little weight on art. So these are my favorites of ’15. They weren’t all released this year and they’re listed in no particular order.

Books

Little Sister Death – William Gay
Loitering – Charles D’Ambrosio
The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu
The Dark Forest – Cixin Liu
White Noise – Don Delillo
Tree of Smoke – Denis Johnson
Nobody Move – Denis Johnson
The Laughing Monsters – Denis Johnson
Already Dead – Denis Johnson
11/22/63 – Stephen King
The Eerie Silence – Paul Davies
1491 – Charles Mann
The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro
Wylding Hall – Elizabeth Hand

Movies

The End of the Tour
Crimson Peak
Inherent Vice
Everest
Roger Waters The Wall
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
Mistaken for Strangers
20,000 Days on Earth
Sicario
Jurassic World
Whitey: United States of America vs James J. Bulger
Breaking the Maya Code

Music

The Magic Whip – Blur
Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress – Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Poison Season – Destroyer
No No No – Beirut
Carrie & Lowell – Sufjan Stevens

TV Shows

Penny Dreadful – Seasons 1 and 2
The Knick – Season 1
Narcos – Season 1
Game of Thrones – Season 5

Podcasts

The Flophouse
The Coode Street Podcast

Thoughts on Bram Stoker’s Dracula

DraculaI listened to the audiobook of this. Took me over a year because I took long breaks to listen to other books. The cast of readers did a wonderful job however and the book itself was surprisingly readable. I devoured it as a kid, but back then I had more patience (or simply more time) for slower books so I wasn’t sure I’d make it all the way through this time. But DRACULA wasn’t slow at all. In fact, it was so fast-paced and action-packed it felt ready-made for all the movies it has spawned. I found the writing to be very atmospheric (and, sure, melodramatic in that good old Victorian way) and what was remarkable was that a) Dracula himself barely made an appearance in the book and b) he had a thick, black mustache and looked Eastern European — duh, you’d think, that’s where he’s from, but most movies over the years seem to have forgotten or neglected this fact.

Thoughts on Steven Millhauser’s Martin Dressler

Martin DresslerPrior to reading this book my only exposure to Steven Millhauser’s work had been the movie THE ILLUSIONIST with Ed Norton, which was adapted (poorly, I’ve been told) from one of his short stories. I liked THE ILLUSIONIST: it looked great and told a clever story, even though the characters were a bit two-dimensional. I liked MARTIN DRESSLER for (or despite) the same reasons. It’s a fairy tale with a dark glimmer around the edges, that may just be a little heavy on the scenery and light on characterization.

This book is not for everyone. The narration is cool, aloof even. The reader never gets a strong sense of who Martin Dressler is or why he does what he does (Martin amasses a great fortune but doesn’t develop much of a personality). The ending feels rushed and not very dramatic, even though it was foreshadowed on the very first page. And yet, I felt all this suited the dreamlike quality of the story (same as with THE ILLUSIONIST).

I admit it took me years to dig into this book. I could never get past the accumulation of detail on the first few pages. This time around though, for whatever reason, all that detail hypnotized me. It became the book’s greatest strength. Millhauser conjures a kaleidoscopic view of what New York might have been like around the turn of the 19th century, similar to what E.L Doctorow did in RAGTIME.