Deaths of Distant Friends (or, John Updike F#cking Rocks)

By Kurt Baumeister for The Weeklings

Published August 29, 2016

 

I.

 

My relationship with John Updike was a complicated one in that it didn’t really exist. Or did it? With writers, it’s tough to say.

We can have connections, important ones, without ever meeting. They can be solitary admiration societies, one-way friendships of sorts. Or, they can be more conventional, involve shared human interaction, whether written, spoken, or (rarer still) the social graces required of real physical proximity. To be clear, though, John Updike and I were not friends, one-way or otherwise. But we did meet, once upon a time…

“John Updike fucking rocks,” I shouted at the darkened sky, doing my best impression of a nineteen-year old in the parking lot at a hair-metal concert. Honestly, that was the effect I was going for. And I’m positive I achieved it.

My friends Tom and Maria, and I had just gotten off the T at Government Center. It was cold and drizzly. The sky full dark, the lower air bright with lights from small storefronts and the blocky government buildings. There were people everywhere, some on their ways home, others headed out to eat or drink. We were on our way to Faneuil Hall for a reading, John Updike’s reading.

A little man in a fedora and trench coat scurried past, shifting his gaze for a quick appraisal of the caterwauling lunatic to his right. (That would have been me.) A glance and the little man was gone, a retreating shape against the night.

Some bean counter out to kill my fun, I probably thought. Which would have seemed a reasonable enough conclusion, I guess, for a bean counter like me, given a one-night-only furlough from his corporate prison on the sixtieth floor of the Hancock Tower.

“John Updike fucking rocks,” I said again, perhaps not as loud, still largely undaunted by my own stupidity. I was practically daring the little man to respond even as he faded into the distance. And he did, with the slightest nod, a sign of resignation, an acceptance that my lunacy would continue whether he wanted it to or not.

“Kurt, that was him,” Tom said, with a chuckle.

“What? Who?”

“Updike. That was him.”

“No.”

“Yes,” Maria agreed.

You may wonder how old was I then? Late twenties, something like that. I could probably figure it out if I had to. I was married (or close to it), living in Salem, home of fake witches and nightmare traffic. My future former wife, Sara, where was she that night? Somewhere, yes, definitely, obviously. But somewhere else, somewhere not with me. By that point, Sara had tired of literary events. She’d had enough of writers talking about writing as they went to see writers read their writing, as they sometimes got drunk and acted undignified in public. The whole scene was a real fucking drag for Sara, this writing hobby of mine. She had referred to it as that years before; something I was destined to never let her forget, something in the years since I’ve never let myself forget.

The marriage ended not so many years later. Two? Three? Five? I could figure it out, but would I sound horrible if I said it didn’t matter at this point? Even worse if I said I was glad she’s gone? Would I sound ridiculous, then, if I copped to still missing her once in a while? Or would that all simply sound human?

I’m not sure what I was thinking about at that moment, that night near Faneuil Hall, almost certainly not Sara. Maybe I was wondering whether that had really been John Updike, inventing scenarios in my head, one-way conversations as to what the great man had been thinking as he scurried away…

So this is what Rushdie was talking about? The fucking lunatics and their fatwas? This is what it’s all about, the fucking fatwas, and now they’ve come to America, to Boston? How I long for a simpler time, the years of my youth, the 30’s and 40’s and 50’s, before the world was broken, when all was still new and good, when liquor was cheap and we didn’t know smoking killed us.

I’ll need to call the police, of course, once I get to Faneuil Hall. And my agent to harangue her for not sending a car. The T? Riding the fucking subway at my age? God, and now I have to read. Okay, I can do that. But then the questions? And some asshole grad student (or two or six) trying to impress me, take me down a peg, or both? Or, what about this would-be executive over here? Maybe he’ll rush the stage. What if he’s armed? God, I hope they have security at Faneuil Hall. I really may need to call the cops. And after all that I’ll have to sign books. This is no way to spend a winter’s eve, not when you’re John Updike, icon of American literature, that’s for sure.

This wasn’t the real John Updike, though. This was a character, built of facts and rumors, biases and opinions. I still hadn’t met the real Updike yet. Rather, I’d glimpsed a little man scurrying away in the night, been told that was Updike, and created a backstory for him. I would meet the real Updike, though, a little later.

 

II.

 

I’ve only read one book by John Updike. Perhaps his most famous, the first in what eventually became the tetralogy of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, that book is Rabbit, Run, and I’ve actually read it twice, once for kicks, once for class. In my unscholarly opinion, Updike was a very talented stylist who wrote about topics I found (and find) uninteresting. Even the best attribute of Updike’s work, his prose, doesn’t always do it for me. At times, there’s no edge to Updike, almost as if he doesn’t care, as if writing is more a job than anything else.

Still, the man was incredibly successful as serious writers go. A major literary figure before I was born, he remained one until his death, and probably will long after mine. In this sense, there is some connection between us, tenuous and common as it may be. There were other connections, though, important if only for idiosyncratic reasons; connections that fleshed out the opinions I had of Updike, the constructed character I carried in my head as I approached Faneuil Hall.

There was the sage input I’d received from a grad school professor in the late nineties who told me to “Quit trying to write like Updike,” a goal (writing like Updike) that couldn’t have been further from my mind. In fairness to the instructor in question, he seemed fairly obsessed with the great man, not as an admirer of Updike’s work so much as his fame. The professor in question would pepper us with mentions of golfing with Updike, a veritable duffing bromance I expect amounted to one trip around the links many years before. This professor wrote page turners and screenplays, screenplays turned into page turners and page turners become screenplays. The entirety of his writing advice had to do with fame and monetary gain, the trappings of being a successful “author”, a word poisoned for me by its connection to this professor. In retrospect, he reminds me a bit of Donald Trump, if Donald Trump were a writing professor. This guy talked about stakes a lot, about always raising them in fiction. He made the same joke about grilling steaks again and again.

Then there were the days my wife and I spent with her friend up the coast in Ipswich, a place Updike had lived as a younger man. By that point he’d moved along the North Shore to Beverly Farms (and a mansion, I’m sure). And why not? All those books, many of them best sellers. The film options (The Witches of Eastwick, for example). After many years, Ipswich gossip still teemed with stories about John Updike, stories relayed by my wife’s friend, a life-long resident. She’d played with Updike’s children, looked on from a distance as he philandered around that small town, watched him eventually leave his young family and move, literally, down the street. So went the stories from my wife’s friend, so grew the legend of John Updike in my mind, a man who by circumstance and hearsay I became inclined to dislike, or at least to dismiss as boring and bourgeois, not worth my interest. Hence, my mock hysteria at the prospect of seeing him read. Sure, I was going. He was John Updike. But I was going with a chip on my shoulder, a little bit of insurance against disappointment.

The funny thing about Updike being bourgeois is that’s what I was becoming more and more myself, my career in finance advancing with those many halcyon midnights spent at that office in the Hancock Tower, my bank accounts getting fatter, writing time thinner, the act of writing itself growing more difficult until I stopped completely after I finished my MFA.

 

III.

 

There used to be a Waterstone’s by Faneuil Hall. The floors and floors of books and books, now all gone I think, turned into a food court or a fitness club, a Bloomie’s or a Macy’s. At that point, it was still a book store. That was where Updike went after the reading, to Waterstone’s to sign books.

The line for Updike was the longest I’d ever seen at a signing. It still is. The queue snaked from floor to floor of the store, through Science and Religion, Fiction and Children’s, doubling back on itself time and again. We’d been near the end of the line, but Tom and I had decided to stay, to wait. And eventually we’d gotten our chance, nearing the table where John Updike sat.

By the end of the evening, the Waterstone’s employees were imploring customers not to talk to Mr. Updike or make him sign too many books. The facts that should have been obvious: It was late at night, long after closing time. John Updike was nearing seventy. He was tired. People were imposing on him. And I watched as people continued to empty out their duffel bags and approach with their stacks of ten or fifteen books, watched as Updike signed them all without complaint, answered their questions about working at The New Yorker, whether he knew Cher and Jack Nicholson, the same questions he’d probably heard a dozen times just that night. Apparently, the Waterstone’s staffers were good at making blanket requests, bad at actually seeing them fulfilled. And Updike wasn’t going to do that. These were his fans. He was going to sit and sign.

We finally made it to the table, first Tom then me. I set the book I’d just purchased, In the Beauty of the Lilies, on the table before him. He took it in both hands, turned it and opened it, flipped to the title page. His pen descended, made its marks, as it had perhaps a thousand times that night, possibly millions in his life.

“Thank you, Mr. Updike, it’s an honor,” I said, star-struck, reclaiming my book, by that point feeling more than a little self-conscious about my bad manners earlier.

After all that waiting, after the liquor had worn off, I’d been forced to consider the reality of Updike rather than the abstraction of the character I had invented. He was an elderly man out on a cold night, sitting there, signing books. I hoped he wouldn’t recognize me. All I wanted was to get out of there.

“Well, I do fucking rock, don’t I?” he said, winking as Tom circled back, laughing, amazed.

And we stood there, the three of us, just three guys, three fellow dudes, as the rest of the world faded, as the last few people waiting in line disappeared, the store around us vanished, and all that was left were three writer dudes, laughing and laughing.

“I fucking rock, too,” said Tom.

“Well, you can goddam bet I rock, that’s for sure,” I added.

“Fucking rock,” said John Updike, “You guys fucking rock.”

 

IV.

 

Now that Updike is gone, dead nearly a decade, his fictional lilies wilted, swept away. Now that the rabbit has run and reduxed, been rich and at rest, we must reassess. We must deal with the reality of John Updike rather than the character constructed of myth and innuendo, the fiction that is fame, even such little fame as accrues to writers.

There are actually two things I remember about Updike’s work, two things that have stayed with me, and probably will until my death, I hope many years in the future. I think that’s all we can ask of most writers, as writers ourselves; or not ask really, but hope for, that some small bit of their work will stay with us in a meaningful way. For me, with Updike, the first is the beginning of Rabbit, Run.

“Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it. Legs, shouts. The scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles seems to catapult their voices high into the moist March air blue above the wires.”

The rhythms, they’re what get me. “…Legs, shouts. The scrape and snap…” returns to me from time to time. No, it’s not the beginning of Lolita (though Updike clearly learned something from Nabokov). Still, it’s pretty good. It’s poetry, yes? Poetry become fiction.

The second thing that stays with me is the title of a later story of Updike’s, “Deaths of Distant Friends”. The lyrical beauty of that title—and more the truth of it—grows in my mind. The connections between people, the unavoidable loss of those connections, the sadness and joy that come with their memory.

I haven’t seen Tom and Maria in nearly a decade. It’s been even longer since Sara and I parted ways. As for John Updike, there was never a connection really, the end of the signing story an obvious fabrication. Admit it, though, you wanted that as much as I did.

Yes, I did meet Updike. And, yes, just as I said, I didn’t really know him. We weren’t friends. Except for the way certain people and events can fill our memories, can seem insignificant at first, then grow as the present retreats into the past.

I think of John Updike from time to time, of that night I met him, now years ago. More than Updike, I think of the people I’ve mentioned here and so many others, realities gone to the place all realities must, the shadow land of memory.

Beyond the veil, beyond our spent efforts and other, mortal failings, there can come visions, recognitions bright enough to change the way we see the world. These realizations are made still more magical by the fact that we had no cause for marking their consequence, nor that of the memories that spawned them, no obvious reason to do so when once we lived them, many years before.

Donald Trump’s America

By  for The Weeklings

donald-trump

The time for joking about Donald Trump is over. In spite of the failed crash landing of a convention the Republicans just executed in Cleveland, Trump means to be the 45th President of the United States. And the odds are even he’ll succeed. There’s no need to let that become a reality, though, America, no percentage in giving Trump a chance, or waiting to see “what it looks like”. We already know what Donald Trump’s America will look like.

Blatant racism and coarse sexism will be the new norms. Tests of religion will govern immigration and citizenship. And then there’s the maniacal whimsy of this man’s foreign policy: friendly with Putin one day, his supposed enemy the next; the suggested use of nuclear weapons; decades-old alliances treated with the reverence of a dirty joke on a cocktail napkin; war crimes that make waterboarding seem quaint an ever-ready option in Trump’s dubious bag of tricks.

You’ve seen Donald Trump’s America reflected back in the steely imperium of his gaze, heard it in the way he can talk about himself in glowing terms for hours, felt its chill in the way he strips credentials from journalists who disagree with him and threatens uncooperative “Mexican” judges with reprisals should he win the presidency, the way he embraces violence against protesters and reduces his political enemies to figures fit only for jail, makes anyone who disagrees with him into a liar, a crook, or worse, the way he’s spent his life using lawsuits to abuse our judicial system, throwing frivolous actions against his fellow citizens for no reason greater than that he can, no nobler goal than to win at all costs.

In this coming nation built on lies and ego, in Donald Trump’s America, there is one man with our country’s best interests at heart, one man good and just enough for his word to be law. In Third World countries, he might be known as The Colonel or The General, El Jefe or Dear Leader. And, in America, if we’re not careful, he might be as well. For now, America’s Dear Leader answers to Mr. Trump, the odd insistence that others treat him with respectful formality doubly disturbing when read against the blithe disrespect with which he treats the rest of us.

Don’t fool yourselves, Republicans. Don’t think for a second you need to support the team on this, that once Trump is in power the apparatus of government will rein him in. For once, Ted Cruz has actually shown you the way. Did Cruz himself have the best intentions in making that petulant convention speech? Of course not. He acted out of pique. But who can blame him after Trump gave him the sobriquet Lyin’ Ted, after he mocked Cruz’s wife’s looks, and suggested Cruz’s father had somehow been involved with the JFK assassination? And the truth of Cruz’s assessment of his party’s candidate is undeniable: Donald Trump is not a man who will defend the American Constitution. This is a man who will accumulate as much power as he can. And who knows what means he might employ to do that once he’s president? If character is destiny, and past prologue, we’ve already seen the means he’ll employ: hatred, violence, lies, and the corruption of our judicial system.

Don’t fool yourselves, Democrats. Don’t tell yourselves that no one in their right mind could possibly support Trump, that at any rate, there’s no way enough people will vote for Trump to elect him president. Didn’t you feel that way about George W. Bush? Things were good, you thought, back in 2000. Al Gore was obviously way better qualified than Bush. And you thought if W. did win, how much harm could he possibly do? He seemed nice enough, right; a compassionate conservative and all that? But W. did untold damage. In many ways, he laid the groundwork for so many of today’s troubles, from our fiscal mess and our endless entanglements in the Middle East, to the rise of a would-be despot like Donald Trump.

Don’t fool yourselves, Independents, into thinking there will be any liberty once you’re under Trump’s thumb. You will live at the caprice of our Dear Leader. Can loyalty oaths be far off? What about religious questionnaires for all to fill out, just to make sure you’re not one of “them”, you know, a Muslim? And as we know from history, once there’s a perceived, state-sanctioned “them”, it’s easy for that group to expand. Maybe someday soon atheists and Jews will join that select group? Perhaps Marxists and social democrats? Maybe even liberals?

Don’t fool yourselves, America, into thinking there are any “safe” or “uncontested” states. Wasn’t it Bernie Sanders who won the Michigan primary even though all the polls agreed he wouldn’t? Don’t listen to the people who voted for Nader in 2000 and still haven’t learned their lesson. Bush and Gore were the same, they said, back then. But they weren’t, were they? Not even close. We can’t afford to take a chance again with our country and our lives. Yet still, they make the same old arguments, trying to fool people into going along with their “statement” vote. But to what end? Do these people want to see our form of government strengthened, our country improved, or do they see America as so flawed that real political unrest (read, violent revolution) is a worthy alternative? Do they see fascism as a painful necessary step on the way to something better? And what would that something better be? Totalitarian Marxism? Anarchy?

Donald Trump recently signaled that his first act as President would be to request special powers from Congress, to make it easier for him to fire civil servants, particularly anyone hired during the Obama Administration. He wants to get rid of those whose loyalty he questions, simple as that. And where did Trump get this idea? It was the first thing Adolf Hitler did when he took power in Germany, a way to cinch an iron grip on the levers of government, a way to make the entire German state beholden to him. Nor is this the first time we’ve heard of Trump pulling a move or two from the Fuhrer’s playbook. Remember, this guy spent twenty years with Hitler’s speeches at his bedside, dipping in from time to time, reading, studying. And now he accepts the support of Klansmen and Nazis with a wink and a nod. (Hoping to capitalize on the current wave of Trumpian racism, KKK Grand Dragon David Duke has reemerged, declaring his candidacy for the United States Senate.) It’s time to stand up, America. It’s time to refuse to give any more comfort to Donald Trump, those who follow him, and those who can’t be bothered to oppose him.

I see people cheering Trump on Facebook, even a few liberals saying, “Well, thank God someone is going to bring all the troops home. Enough of America being involved in far-flung conflicts and wars of empire.” And what do you think Herr Trump, this man who proudly describes himself as “militaristic”, will do with these hundreds of thousands of troops once he brings them home? Do you think he will simply dismiss them, swell the ranks of America’s unemployed? Or, will he use them to tamp down unrest at home, to deport eleven (or twelve, or thirteen) million “illegal” immigrants? And who else might Trump deport? Who else might become a member of his unholy “them”? Just recently, we’ve heard reports that Rudy Giuliani (tipped as Trump’s Anti-Terrorism Czar) has suggested an additional 800,000 anti-terrorism police and that Trump has agreed. Could these initiatives be linked? Could all our returning service-men and -women be employed by America’s Dear Leader as his special anti-terrorism (and anti-unrest and anti-dissent) police force?

The time for debate is over—the time for boutique issues, pet positions, and fringe candidates; the time for putting your mythical, intellectual integrity above the real danger America faces. The time is over for considerations of conscience with a small c. Let’s think about conscience with a big C. Let’s think about the country as a whole, try to imagine the dangers in putting a would-be strongman like Donald Trump in power. Now that the Republican Party has nominated Donald Trump for President we, the voters, are the only thing left between him and power. If we fail now, who knows when we might get another chance? Who knows just how much blood and treasure that chance might cost?

Found in Translation (50 Things You Don’t Mean and What You Really Do)

By Kurt Baumeister for The Weeklings

 

“The colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky,

Are also on the faces of people going by.

I see friends shaking hands, sayin’, ‘How do you do?’

They’re really sayin’, ‘I love you.’”

–Louis Armstrong, “What a Wonderful World”

 

What a wonderful world it would be…if we could just say what we mean. If we dropped all the pretense associated with word choice and cadence, syntax, punctuation and every other stripe of linguistic jiu-jitsu. If only we could hit each other with Vulcan mind melds, y’know, verbally; always make straight for the meat without getting knotted up in our own ledes. We’d be happy hounds, cantering ‘cross shitless, conversational Elysian Fields, love abundant, harmony (and nary a dookie) all around. Whether in the workaday world or the good old sister-and-brother-hood of letters, at the holidays with the extended family or at home with the ever-volatile nuclear unit. Maybe even the world of politics would benefit from a little truth in vocalizing…

 

Corporate Warfare 

 

  1. “You are a valued contributor.”

Translation: “Get the fuck back to work.”

  1. “The financials look good.”

Translation: “I have no idea how the financials look.”

  1. “Revenues are way up.”

Translation: “We had to cut prices because nobody wanted our product.”

  1. “The value of our intellectual property is more or less incalculable.”

Translation: “We’re on the verge of bankruptcy.”

  1. “He’s tough but fair.”

Translation: “He’s an asshole.”

  1. “She just has really high standards.”

Translation: “She’s an asshole.”

  1. “How’s your family?”

Translation: “I’m thinking of firing you and trying to gauge how likely you are to go postal.”

  1. “Is this the best you can do?”

Translation: “How’s your resume looking?”

  1. “We actually have a negative tax rate.”

Translation: “We’ve done some really shady shit.”

  1. “Maybe you and your team can take that on.”

Translation: “You’re overstaffed. Start figuring out who to fire.”

 

Politics 101

 

  1. “Well, I guess if you believe that strongly enough.”

Translation: “You speak in Shitwitanese, but I don’t want to argue with you about it again.”

  1. “You raise an important issue.”

Translation: “I have no idea what you just said.”

  1. “Agree to disagree.”

Translation: “I’m tired of explaining this to you.”

  1. “The Second Amendment really should have been the First Amendment.”

Translation: “I definitely have a gun in my car. And I probably have one in my sock.”

  1. “Freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion.”

Translation: “Religion means Christianity. And freedom is overrated.”

  1. “The most important thing is good old-fashioned common sense.”

Translation: “Books is for suckers.”

  1. “The billionaire class.”

Translation: “The guillotine had its benefits.”

  1. “Small government.”

Translation: “Why aren’t there debtors’ prisons anymore?”

  1. “Bankers.”

Translation: “Capitalism.”

  1. “Political correctness.”

Translation: “Women and dark-skinned people complaining.”

 

Hell Sweet Hell

 

  1. “It really looks great on you.”

Translation: “I have no idea how to answer this question.”

  1. “You and your sister go watch TV.”

Translation: “There is not enough Xanax in the world.”

  1. “We haven’t had a date night in a long time.”

Translation: “I’m on the verge of screwing the vacuum cleaner.”

  1. “I’ll always care for you.”

Translation: “I don’t want to fuck you ever again.”

  1. “That’s fine.”

Translation: “Nothing is fine.”

  1. “The dog’s missed you all day. I think he’s in the living room.”

Translation: “The dog threw up and/or took a shit in the living room. He and one or both are there waiting for you. By the way, where the fuck have you been?”

  1. “Kitty just needs to warm up to you.”

Translation: “If Kitty were big enough, she would rip you limb from limb.”

  1. “Ask your mother.”

Translation: “No.”

  1. “Get your father to drive you.”

Translation: “No.”

  1. “My wife invited her parents to visit. Her father was special forces.”

Translation: “I will be sleeping with one eye open for the next few weeks.”

 

Home for the Holidays

 

  1. “This looks wonderful.”

Translation: “Is there an escape hatch to this house?”

  1. “Are you supposed to serve x with y?”

Translation: “The Martha Stewart Holiday Dinner Guide Volume VI, Section 4, Verse 11 states quite clearly you are not supposed to serve x with y.”

  1. “My mom’s turkey is so good. I’ll get you the recipe.”

Translation: “Is this turkey or a suede jacket from 1968?”

  1. “I need a drink.”

Translation: “I need a hell of a lot more than a drink.”

  1. “You look great.”

Translation: “I expected you to look much worse.”

  1. “You look good.”

Translation: “I expected you to look much better.”

  1. “Can we all try to get along this year?”

Translation: “I’d be OK if this turned into The Purge: A Christmas Miracle.”

  1. “I don’t want to impose.”

Translation: “I’m going to be a pain in the ass.”

  1. “I didn’t realize you were inviting Uncle Willie.”

Translation: “Is there cyanide in the cranberry sauce?”

  1. “Look how many children you have!”

Translation: “I knew I should have stayed in my sensory deprivation tank.”

 

Writing Workshop

 

  1. “I can see you put a lot of energy into this, but it’s just not working for me.”

Translation: “How much time did you waste on this monstrous literary homunculus?”

  1. “Your writing is very cinematic.”

Translation: “Your dialogue/story/plot (choose one or more) is/are so good I can barely contain my envy. But I’m going to do my best to make you feel like shit about it all the same.”

  1. “I’m not sure how to respond to this. I write ‘literary fiction’.”

Translation: “I may say I’m talking about your writing, but I’m really talking about mine.”

  1. “I wouldn’t have written it this way.”

Translation: “I’m a narcissistic twat.”

  1. “Everyone is doing so well.”

Translation: “I hate how well everyone is doing.”

  1. “Who is it you read?”

Translation: “What would possess you to write this shite?”

  1. “I’m just trying to help.”

Translation: “I am absolutely not trying to help, but I fear I’m in the process of being called out for my lack of helpfulness.”

  1. “This is amazing.”

Translation: “I may never recover.”

  1. “Dense.”

Translation: “Soporific.”

  1. “Challenging.”

Translation: “Dense.”

 

U2: All That You Can’t Leave Behind

By Kurt Baumeister for The Weeklings

 

New Year’s Day

 

“Under a blood-red sky

A crowd has gathered in black and white

Arms entwined, the chosen few

The newspaper says, says

Say it’s true, it’s true…

And we can break through

Though torn in two

We can be one.”

 

By the beginning of the Eighties, the Beatles, the Stones, Zeppelin, and the Who were broken-up, dead, engaged in self-parody, or some not-so-happy mixture of the three. In a way it seemed like the history of rock and roll had already happened, that everyone and everything important had come and gone. There was a hunger for the next big thing, whatever that was. For a lot of people, that next big thing became U2.

“New Year’s Day” is the first U2 song I remember hearing. I loved that song, and the band, from the start. Bono’s soaring vocals, the lyrics that actually had something to say, “And so we’re told this is the golden age/And gold is the reason for the wars we wage”, Edge’s helicopter guitar (alternately jagged and funky, pleading and screaming), the simplicity of the piano, the cauldron of sound and emotion you get when you throw all those things together. And then there was the Christianity. For a kid who wanted to live in a world that made sense—who wanted to believe—maybe this was the cherry on top.

Fast forward thirtysomething years from that sunny summer afternoon: I’m still here and so are U2. Our relationship hasn’t changed much, not really. Back when I got into U2, very few other people cared about the band. They were still semi-underground, at least in the US. They were still cool.

All these years later, Bono and the boys have lived their artistic life cycle, gone from cool to popular to the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band to over-the-hill and hated. It’s taken a long time for all that to happen, but at this point it sounds familiar. It sounds like the career arc of every big musical act of my lifetime. Of every one of those classic Founding Fathers of Rock up above.

Once the love happens, the hatred is inevitable. The first question isn’t if, but when that hatred will come. The second question is what will survive in the popular conscious, what critical opinion will endure? Love? Hate? Something in between? There’s a third question, though; one that dwarfs, maybe even voids, the other two. The third question is, “Does it really matter what anyone else thinks?”

 

achtung-baby-cover-graphic-design-amp-visual

 

One

 

“Have you come here for forgiveness,

Have you come to raise the dead

Have you come here to play Jesus to the lepers in your head”

 

I began thinking about writing something on U2 during the iTunes debacle that went with the release of their last album, Songs of Innocence. All over Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of the Internet, the hate was flying. How dare they give us a free album? What could possess them? What fucking audacity…

Nor was this reaction confined to the young, the kids you’d fully expect to hate U2 just on generational grounds. Every closet libertarian and faux free speech advocate was up on his or her high horse blathering about Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, the evil Apple Corporation, and, of course, the nefarious ministrations of Bono and his paunchy band of geriatric droogs. 1984 had really, finally, come. And Bono was Big Brother.

In retrospect, the complaints about getting free music and the travails of having to delete it still don’t hold a lot of resonance for me. But I have to say that the cool critical reception the album received has stuck with me. And I’ve come to share it. Songs of Innocence is the first U2 album I haven’t really listened to. You know, repetitively, addictively.

Sure, I sat through it a couple of times, but it didn’t sink its nails into my soul and make me memorize its songs the way so many others have. It was disjointed, a weak effort in spite of the five-star review Rolling Stone gifted it with and its subsequent selection as their album of the year. Songs of Innocence may even be U2’s worst album, something that’s never a welcome sight to a fan, but especially not this late in a career. (Think of what Dirty Work meant for the ‘Stones or Coda for Zeppelin.) It doesn’t take much imagination to interpret Songs of Innocence as the beginning of the end. Which, in a way, brings me back to my third question: Does it matter what anyone else thinks about U2? The short answer is, “No.”

What I’ve gotten from U2, what any audience receives from any artist, is the joy of discovery, the act of finding something they love in the world. These are the sorts of surprises that make life worthwhile, and the older you get, the less of them there are. (I thought of this a few weeks ago when I was reviewing a book, one I shouldn’t have liked, one I was genuinely surprised to enjoy as much as I did.)

Maybe you become jaded as you age, harder to surprise. Or maybe you just realize that you’re never going to get everything right; that the opinions people spit out with such adamancy now could be gone in a year or ten or fifty. That regardless of whether those opinions live or die, one thing will absolutely be gone at the shadowy end of that time frame. And that one thing is you.

But memories of past discoveries and the feelings they evoke—the sadness they helped you cope with, the anger they helped you through, the thrill of driving in the car with the top down and the stereo cranked singing along with something that actually spoke to you, that sunny summer afternoon when you first heard “New Year’s Day”—those memories are some of the best in life. And not many things in this world have the power to change memories. Memories belong to you in spite of what anyone else has to say, in spite of love and hate.

 

U2 - The Joshua Tree 1987

 

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

 

“I believe in the Kingdom Come

Then all the colours will bleed into one

Bleed into one.

But yes, I’m still running.

 

You broke the bonds

And you loosed the chains

Carried the cross of my shame

Oh my shame, you know I believe it.

 

But I still haven’t found

What I’m looking for.

But I still haven’t found

What I’m looking for.”

 

I don’t believe anymore. In God, I mean. Did I ever? That question becomes harder to answer as time goes by. I know I wanted to, but that doesn’t mean I did. Does anyone ever really believe? Even the people who scream it from the mountaintops? Especially the people who scream it from the mountaintops?

No, I’m not one of those devout atheists who’s willing to stake his intellectual credibility on certainty only a zealot would claim. That sounds a little too much like faith to me. I’m agnostic, aware that I just don’t know what exists in the metaphysical world or whether there even is one. I’m not smart enough to be sure. None of us are. We’re only human.

I can make some guesses, draw a few conclusions that lead me to think no fundamentalist interpretation of any religion can be correct since the rightness of those fundamentalist beliefs precludes the rightness of any other fundamentalist beliefs. If only Christianity is correct, every other believer in every other faith is doomed. The same is true for Islam.

Am I saying this proves without a doubt that no single faith is correct in its most extreme interpretation? No. But I am saying that the broad preponderance of evidence suggests no single faith is “right” in the extreme, that the most likely answer is they’re all wrong.

In spite of the Christianity U2 have seemed to wear on their sleeves at times, I’ve long felt they had doubts about it, that there was a sense in the music of the imperfection of religion and even our interpretations of god, that even if you believe, you will always doubt. You’ll never be sure. Until you are. Then, it won’t matter anymore. Because you’ll be dead.

As for me and religion or God or whatever you want to call it, I have to believe that if there is a God it’s good and that it doesn’t send its imperfect creations to Hell for being imperfect. I have to believe that if there is anything beyond this world it’s good. If there’s anything beyond this world it’s love.

LOOKING BACK AT THE ABYSS: REFLECTIONS ON BINGE-WATCHING “HANNIBAL”

 for THE WEEKLINGS

Monday, April 25, 2016

hannibal_2013_tv_series-wide

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen The Silence of the Lambs, the film that earned Hannibal Lecter his place in pop culture. I saw it in the theater once then at home perhaps a dozen times with my ex-wife. After you’ve seen Silence… a few times, deadened your fear and revulsion responses through a knowledge of what’s to come, you can (or, at least, we did) watch it as the blackest of black comedies. The lines of dialogue are that memorable:

“A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.”

“Well, Clarice – have the lambs stopped screaming?”

“You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube. A well scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste.”

“You fly back to school, now, little Starling. Fly, fly, fly…”

As anyone who’s seen the movie more than once knows, this is only the beginning ofLecter’s Familiar Quotations. I have a good friend who actually watches Silence… with her husband and kids, the entire family reciting the most memorable lines as they come. Of course it’s a little creepy. Or is it a little funny? Both, I think. Maybe the expectation and enunciation make the darkness easier to take. I don’t know. Whatever the reason, the infectious, memorable nature of so many lines of dialogue fromSilence… speaks not only to the power of the film itself, but to Hannibal Lecter’s strength as a dramatic construct. Yes, other characters in the film are memorable (Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling most of all), but Lecter is the glue (more likely, he’d prefer “marrow”) holding things together.

I’ve watched the other, lesser Lecter movies—Red Dragon, Hannibal, and Hannibal Rising—seen them several times apiece. I actually read all three books just they were released as films. The character of Hannibal Lecter does fascinate me. Funny, though, I’d never gotten around to the TV show. Until now.

Several days ago I began watching Hannibal Season 1, running through its thirteen episodes at a clip of several a day. Season 2 (an additional thirteen eps) followed directly. I came to a halt at beginning of Season 3, unwilling to spring for the additional $1.99 (x 13) Amazon Prime was hoping to extract. Don’t get me wrong. The show is good, very good. But I know it’s been cancelled, Season 3 its last. I’m guessing there’s a reason why. Even if there’s not (beyond falling ratings), I’m low enough on scratch to wait. More than that, I’m tired. Psychically, spiritually, psychiatrically…God, even visually. Hannibal may be good, but it also takes a lot out of you. There’s no other way to say it.

As intellectually enticing as Hannibal is with all its mind games and moral dilemmas, as viscerally so with Hannibal’s (non-cannibalistic) culinary adventures and the concomitant food porn, the onslaught of evil (or deviance, or madness, or all of the above) grinds you down. There’s an extreme weight to the show, a denseness, not only in character development, but in the parade of monsters and victims its lesser players are. Serial killer after serial killer is trotted out for Will Graham (a pure empath, Lecter’s ultimate nemesis) to commune with and catch, Graham growing ever closer to madness himself as he comes to realize his friend, mentor, and pseudo-therapist Dr. Lecter is way more than he seems.

And all along Lecter takes on an identity that borders on the inexplicable, the supernatural. There’s an air of magic in Hannibal, of powers of the mind (suggestion and intuition, mesmerism and outright manipulation) that can’t quite be explained. Thoroughly contemporary as Hannibal Lecter is, a product of our post-postmodern age and all that, he bears more than a few similarities (his powers of persuasion for starters) to one of the greatest literary villains of the Western canon, Count Dracula.

At this point, more than a century since Bram Stoker resurrected the Count’s history and turned it into contemporary fiction, Dracula has held our interest in novel after novel and film after film. Often, the Count and his supporting cast transcend and/or substantially deviate from the basic tale of vampires, castles, and Old World superstition crashing into what then seemed the very apex of science and learning, Victorian England.

Dracula’s been shot into space. He’s been transplanted to modern-day Manhattan. He often goes without his nemeses Harker and Van Helsing. He’s been arch-enemy of the vampiric superhero Blade and a figure of comedy. Dracula is a cultural marker so potent that his key trait, vampirism, has spawned many a scenario in which the Count isn’t even involved (True Blood anyone?).

This malleability of conceit seems to me one of the hallmarks of real cultural impact, of staying power. An attribute that’s echoed in the way Hannibal is able to recast the basic Lecter story Thomas Harris has penned in his novels, to update it several decades but also to make it more granular and, at times, even deviate substantially from Harris’s texts. Television’s Hannibal is a thing its own, a creature born of the Harris books, but not one with them.

If a story or a character can survive decades of increasingly diverse interpretations, you know you have something. Think about Shakespeare’s work as an example. Shakespeare’s power in our culture is akin to, perhaps in some ways even beyond, that of classical mythology at this point—we get the allusions instantly but we can also see deviations from the standard and accept them. The core stories (Hamlet, Macbeth,Romeo and Juliet, Othello, etc.) are strong enough for us, vividly enough coded into our collective conscious that we can stand and even enjoy their transformations. This isn’t always the case. Think, for example, of another piece of art that dominates contemporary imagination, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

Two decades, five books, and five seasons of Game of Thrones, the series it spawned, and the cracks are beginning to show. Sure, the Nielsen ratings are still high. But Martin’s inability to complete the last two books in his cycle has resulted in a fairly significant divergence in story lines between the book and television versions, a fact that has caused consternation to a few fans, this one included. The trouble Martin and HBO are encountering right now is lack of a canonical story, the sort of backbone that would allow for deviations. Does this have to do simply with timing, is it just that scheduling has “fouled things up”? Maybe, but probably not. Now—and certainly if the trend continues with future seasons (and books)—there will always be doubt about what’s real in this world, about what its core realities are. More than that, the doubt exists at the world’s genesis, which may to some extent mute the overall impact of Martin’s work. Obviously, this can be fixed. And, for an extended narrative still in process, you can’t set the same standards as you would for a story that’s run its course. What this does point to is why Hannibal Lecter is such a powerful cultural icon, how he may at some point in the not too distant future begin to seem emblematic of his age in the same way Stoker’s Dracula is of his.

The connection between Lecter and Dracula isn’t a new one. The Count and the Doctor have more than a few similarities. There are the consumption of human beings as food, the inexplicable mental powers of persuasion I mentioned earlier, and devilish brilliance. Writing for The New York Times all the way back in 1999, Stephen King noted, “If Hannibal Lecter isn’t a Count Dracula for the computer-and-cell-phone age, then we don’t have one.” A quick Google search will reveal that more than a few people have come to similar conclusions since. Creating linkage between Lecter and Dracula isn’t what this is about, not really.

The singular, superpowerful villain is a deep myth for humanity, an obvious personification of humanity’s overarching opponent or adversary, the unknown. In the West, the most obvious example is Satan, a creature of Christian mythology that far predates Hannibal Lecter or even Dracula. And there are certainly many grand, cosmic villains that predate Satan. It’s not much of a stretch to think that the earliest notions of magic, myth, and religion countenanced the personification of the inexplicable as symbols of good and evil. One of the easiest things to do for humanity—as easy as worshipping natural forces or animals—is to worship itself, an aspect or construct at least that resembles itself. To what end do we keep anthropomorphizing evil, though? This is one of the key questions my Hannibal binge had me asking. There were others, of course.

I wondered about the existence and traits of God, something Hannibal himself muses on freely, hinting more than once that he might as well be God. And maybe he is in a sense, the point being there’s no God at all or, worse still that God is like Hannibal Lecter. I also thought a lot about the duality of sanity and madness and whether that’s as tenuous and imprecise a paradigm as that of good to evil. I wondered, whether the good brain versus bad brain construct is just another of humanity’s failed guestimates about how to explain the inexplicable. In the end the conclusion I drew was a basic one, more grounded in simple criticism than grand revelation. These questions point to why the story of Hannibal Lecter is so potent for us, why it stands up to retelling and reinterpretation as it does in TV’s Hannibal.

The dangers of madness and evil—their seductiveness, at least in fiction—are obvious. For the writer and reader, the fictional space is a transactional one, a space in which a piece of art can be exchanged in a sense; where artist can plumb the depths of societal, personal, and even imaginary darkness, where the audience member (in whatever medium) can do all these things for themselves, without the work or psychic danger of creative immersion.

The audience member can create space when she needs to, can end exposure, much more easily and readily than the art’s maker. Though, let’s be clear: never entirely. There exists the possibility—more than that, the certainty on some level—that audience member will have to contend with the impact of viewing the fictional evil or insanity (the unknowable as we’ve come to refer to them). It’s just that they do it at a greater distance and separate from it with greater ease than the artist.

Hannibal is a sticky piece of art, one that resists such separation. It haunts you in a way, crowds out lighter thoughts with far weightier ones. This is dangerous even for a writer, an artist of sorts, such as me. Leveraging off of Dracula and beyond that some of our seminal doubts as humans, Hannibal Lecter is a villain for the ages. And this TV series proves his…chops…yet again.

In the depths of his evil or insanity, both, or perhaps even more terrifyingly, neither, he plays on our darkest fears as a species. The reality that even we ourselves are ultimately unknowable. And as long as that state exists—which will, no doubt, be as long as we do—there will always be a chance, a “ghostly potentia” to quote Martin Amis from his masterpiece London Fields, that evil and insanity are unknowable enough they may exist inside us all; that even these terms on which we base so much of our lives and thoughts may be wholly imprecise, may not yet scratch at the surface of what we are.

AS #2 AS

 

 

THE HEROES WE NEED

 for THE WEEKLINGS

Film_Box_Office-0f219-2589batsda

I.

Look around today and you see heroes everywhere. TV, films, comic books, toys, happy meals, games, amusement parks, cross-trainers, pajamas. Everywhere, capes and cowls, boots and gloves. All that spandex. All those smiles.

From Superman to Batman, the Avengers to the X-Men, there’s another heroic cosmology lurking behind every virtual corner, another bunch of body-suited shit-kickers looking for their piece of the postmodern economic pie. But what if we shut them all down? What if we told Fox, Sony, Marvel, DC, Disney, and all the rest that we were tired of their games, tired of their CGI bullshit?  What if we told them that we had our own heroes, a new set of real ones we were going to stick with?

Maybe if all the peoples and countries and religions of the world finally worked together, we could undertake a sort of Superheroic Moonshot. We could put Joe Biden in charge. Under Uncle Joe’s leadership we could build a team of real, honest-to-goodness badasses, the sort of heroes who could really, finally, straighten this shit out…

Ms. Joie De Vivre:
Of course it sounds French. That’s because it is. Aside from the chilly reception Ms. Joie might get in the parts of America that still serve Freedom Fries, the majority of people recognize the French as being pretty, pretty, pretty good at quite a few things. One of them is having fun. Sex and food, wine and art: these are just a few French strong suits. Ms. Joie is not only super knowledgeable in every way in which one can have a good time. She imparts that knowledge…that joie de vivre…to others. Ms. Joie can stop wars with a wave of her swizzle stick. She can end political rancor with a wink, a nod, and a well-placed hair toss. She can instantly and irrevocably stifle the (not so) simmering malice that ruins nations small and great.

The Universal Lottery:
The Universal Lottery (TUL) is twenty feet tall and comes clad in gold from head to toe. Though ostensibly male and seemingly naked (albeit gold), TUL’s superhuman sense of decorum allows him to adjust his appearance to camouflage the less unwieldy aspects of his anatomy. Thus does TUL roam the countryside bearing the appearance of a super-sized Ken doll dispensing wealth on all who cross his path; thus does TUL avoid dispensing injury with an ill-timed testicular sashay or accidental penile wallop.

The Reality Whisperer:
A sort of interpreter between humanity and itself (cum simultaneous interpreter between us and the rest of the world), The Reality Whisperer has three principal abilities: 1. To permanently mute the 65.6% of human speech that qualifies as white noise; 2. To selectively cancel the 34.3999% of human speech that amounts to nonsense (discussions about the existence of God, the lack of a scientific consensus on climate change, and the Downton Abbey finale for example); and 3. To communicate our goals and desires to plants, animals, inanimate natural phenomena, and even the planet itself and, more importantly, to relay their goals and desires back to us.

The Hormonal Modulator:
Cortistatin, Estrogen, Inhibin, Relaxin, Secretin, Testosterone, Thyroxine. They sound a little like superheroes in their own right, but they’re not. They’re naturally produced compounds that can alternately serve necessary biochemical functions and take us for a couple laps around the bat-shit bonkerama porcupine racetrack. The Hormonal Modulator would loom everywhere, day and night, regulating human hormonality, smoothing out the manic highs and depressive lows. She’d keep Rick the out-of-work trucker from slashing his wife’s throat. She’d keep Suzy the new mom from stifling her crying infant.

New Buddha:
Though billions revere her as a god, New Buddha sees herself as human, nothing more. Rather than espousing a complex philotheology replete with myriad precepts, rules, and dictums, New Buddha leads by example, spending her days as a harmonious beacon of love, one nonetheless inexplicably magnified by the Cosmos. From her rent-controlled penthouse on New York’s Upper West Side, she sends her good vibrations out into the world. When struck by her metaphysical beams of love, power mad dictators throw down their cruise missiles and profit-hungry billionaires give it all away. Her only enemy is Human Nature, a foul, formless presence that roams The Veil, the metaphysical link between our world and the next, seeking ever to undo New Buddha’s Power of Love. (Primarily through the endless, maddening repetition of the Huey Lewis and the News song “Power of Love”.)

 

II.

Some people will tell you that heroes wouldn’t mean anything without villains. That one really can’t exist without the other. They’ll tell you that for any yin to manifest, there must also be a yang.

Now, I’m not suggesting we go out and build these villainous beasts. We don’t need to. They’re already here, more or less. That’s the strange thing about villains. Unlike heroes, which we seem to need to create (or at least augment), villains live among us. They’re like a byproduct of humanity in a way. All you have to do is add a dab of magical realism and voila…

Big Bad Dogma Daddy:
Big Bad Dogma Daddy (BBDD for short) always comes clad in black (cape, mask, boots, gloves) and white (a bodysuit so uncomfortably tight it can destroy any conversation). BBDD comes from a sunny place no one’s ever heard of. He has traveled countless miles to get wherever he is. While many dispute what he has to say, BBDD keeps his own counsel, for he knows himself to be right. Ever trusting of that little voice inside his head, the one that repeats the wisdom it has taken humanity millennia to gain, BBDD can quote chapter and verse from any belief system, all with the clear-eyed surety of a true believer.

Mr. Apocalypse, Someday:
Something’s going to get us, somehow, someway. This is what Mr. Apocalypse, Someday keeps telling us. He’s been with us forever, literally, looming, waiting, looking for his chance. He’s written books, composed songs, painted pictures. He’s done it all because he’s concerned for us, and he wants us to be concerned, too. The problems he talks about may be incredibly complex, nigh on unsolvable. They may not even be problems at all, strictly speaking. We’re bound to die eventually as a species. Everything goes extinct one way or another.

The Nuclear Djinni:
He was born in the New Mexico desert, born out of thin air as all the best djinnis are. Dr. Robert Oppenheimer spoke his name three times, or so goes the legend. Trinity, Oppenheimer said. Trinity. Trinity. And in a whirl of fire, dust, and explosive fury, the Nuclear Djinni became real. His greatest gift is that he cannot be put back in his bottle. We must find a way to make him obsolete, to make him disappear. The Doomsday Clock is ticking. It’s three minutes, two minutes, one minute to midnight. And if that clock ever stops, the hour will already be too late.

Burning Man:
Once upon a time, Burning Man was a lowly service station attendant. Back in the 50’s he pumped gas and checked oil. He washed windows and polished chrome. Eventually becoming an oil company executive and ultimately top lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry, Burning Man grew old and fearful that his days of burning were coming to an end. He journeyed to the annual Extron Oil board meeting in Hell where he pledged his soul to Extron Chairman Satan in exchange for immortality. Thus does he now spend his days roaming the earth, consuming fossil fuels 24/7.

Purity:
Her full name Scarlett Apple IPhone Purity, the baby who would come to be known simply as Purity was left on the steps of an orphanage one snowy Christmas Eve. That orphanage, run by the Order of the Sisters of Blessed Torment, would become Purity’s home for the next sixteen years. The sisters were tough on Purity, but not too tough. No, it wasn’t religion turned her bad. It was the fact that her parents had named her after a telephone and an actress who couldn’t even spell her own name correctly. Growing angrier and angrier every time she saw the word “scarlet,” Purity eventually saw red figuratively, setting her violent sights first on her birth parents, then on the endless mistakes of a world that had allowed them to reproduce.

 

III.

I wonder sometimes what we’d do with a second chance, another crack at being a species. If we could go back to the beginning, to the time when we first related with ourselves and our world, would we be able to do it better? You know, knowing what we know, would we be able to learn from our mistakes?

Instead of the lies we told ourselves back then—the myriad explanations we came up with for rain and snow, sun and moon—I wonder if we’d be able to come up with new lies. You know, better ones. Lies that would have put us on a more solid footing to this day. Or maybe, is it possible, we’d be able to get by without lies at all? Maybe we’d be able to tell ourselves the truth.

AS #2 AS