Navel-Gazing and Stereotyping in “The Fortress of Solitude”

Book: The Fortress of Solitude

Author: Jonathan Lethem

Genre: Fiction

 

This is going to be a relatively short post, considering the book is 500+ pages. I did not like this book, which is quite disappointing, because I’d been looking forward to reading Lethem for a long time. All in all, it was uneven in the worst way, as it sprawled into pointless side narratives and bland scenes, never tying the worthwhile parts together and spending way too much time on pointless introspection. The more interesting parts of the book, such as Dylan’s absent mother, are barely touched on, while boring-as-shit sequences like his college experience and the ForbiddenCon event took up many pages. The general vibe I got from poking around the internet was that people enjoyed the first half of this book and then trudged through the second half. Honestly, I didn’t really care for either. The first half of the book felt like I was re-watching the first half of A Bronx Tale. I love that movie, but how many times can you read about or watch kids grow up in 20th century NYC? I didn’t need several pages about skully or stick ball, nor did I need extended descriptions of frankly uninteresting characters, like Henry, that never come up again in a meaningful way.

At first, I thought I was liking the second half of the book more, but I soon tired of Dylan’s arrogance and attitude. Worst of all, he was the only character that Lethem really seemed to be emotionally invested in. Mingus, a promising character in the beginning, never really came together. To this point, having finished the book, I’m not really sure why Mingus ever liked Dylan at all. His constant upbeat, playful demeanor was contrasted with Dylan, who never smiles or seems happy about anything. By the time the reader reaches this key moment, where Dylan goes to visit Mingus, you expect the section to be rich with emotion, brimming with insight. But alas, the anticlimax of this scene was overwhelming and frustrating. I should have seen it coming, as Dylan is never really actually interested in anyone but himself. The incessant navel-gazing in the second half of the book made me dislike Dylan even more than I already did, which made the book really drag after a while.

And finally, I was a little bothered by the racial commentary Lethem is interested in here. Many of the black characters felt like caricatures of well-known stereotypes. In one scene, where Dylan is hanging around with three black kids in a park, Lethem describes the young white kids in the park as “animated Disney bluebirds, twittering harmlessly around the head of the Wicked Witch as she coated an apple with poison.” C’mon dude. Dylan and the three black characters were going to do some graffiti–not kill somebody or rob a bank. I have a tough time seeing what was sinister about them. I realize that Lethem is speaking to a point of view, a racist one, that seems prevalent to the setting, but he never offers readers anything as a counterpoint. In this book, black people are drug dealers, pimps, and beggars, all sharing a violent temperament. Black people are never genuine, always trying to trick you or force you into giving them something. Again, I understand that Lethem was trying to highlight a certain quality of ’70s Brooklyn, and perhaps there is some authenticity here, but I would love for Lethem to sit down with me, look me in the eyes, and tell me there were no redeemable people of color in ’70s Brooklyn. In trying to speak to racial tensions at the beginning of Brooklyn’s decades long issue with gentrification, Lethem seems only to have sketched out stereotypes. Even Mingus, who begins the book seeming like a counterpoint to all I mentioned above, eventually falls into those same traps. Arthur, a white peer of Dylan’s who begins the book as a nerdy white kid and eventually becomes entranced by black culture, does become successful later in life, despite getting into the same activities and troubles Mingus was involved in. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of difference between those characters aside from the color of their skin. Perhaps that is making a statement, but that statement felt buried to me.

I still plan on reading Motherless Brooklyn, another of Lethem’s novels, which will hopefully have some redemptive power. Until then, I’m not impressed, Jonathan.

 

Next post: The Stand by Stephen King

 

How Gucci Mane Opened My Mind and Wrote a Fantastic Memoir

Book: The Autobiography of Gucci Mane

Author: Gucci Mane and Neil Martinez-Belkin

Genre: Autobiography

 

Sometime in 2008, as I was preparing for college, I reached out to my would-be roommate via Facebook. One of the first questions I was faced with was, “Do you like Gucci Mane?” I had only heard of him in passing and definitely hadn’t knowingly heard any of his music. I took a quick trip over to Youtube, typed in Gucci’s name, and skipped through a few of his songs. At that point, having grown up listening to 2pac, Nas, Eminem, Immortal Technique, and other “lyrical” rappers, I was highly resistant to anything I deemed less-than-lyrical (read: Southern). Years earlier, in 2004, I remember being incensed that Outkast, a group I defined by their work on Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, had won the award for Best Rap Album. I had not heard Aquemini, Stankonia, ATLiens, etc. I say this only to note that my hip hop pretentiousness at that point in my life had been steadily growing for years, and by the time my roommate asked me about Gucci Mane, I was already repulsed by what I deemed the popular onslaught of catchy, empty, Southern hip hop. Needless to say, I told my roommate-to-be, Doug, “No, I do not.”

Towards the end of 2009, after about three full months of resisting Doug’s Southern rap tastes, I decided to give Gucci Mane’s new album, The State vs. Radric Davis, a try. I wanted to hate it. I wanted to tell Doug when he got back to the room that this music belonged in the garbage can with D4L and Soulja Boy. I wanted to tell him that this kind of hip hop disrespected the art form that its forefathers created. And then “Classical” came on, the album’s intro.

I felt like Odysseus, tied to the mast of East/West coast hip hop, trying to resist what was really, surprisingly, incredible. I was hooked from that song on, and now I couldn’t wait to tell Doug that I had finally opened my heart to the wild and wonderful sounds of southern hip hop. The significance of that moment to me is hard to describe–it marked one of the first times that my fundamental understanding of something was completely obliterated. My position that hip hop needed to be an intricate showing of lyrical ability and serious content contradicted with my newfound love for Gucci Mane. I now had a whole sub-genre of music to explore, and with my self-imposed barriers gone, I looked to Doug for hip hop guidance–Lil Boosie, Webbie, Z-Ro, Waka Flocka Flame, and so many others became, for a while, my go-to music. I have carried this experience with me since as a lesson and a reminder to remain open-minded. How many other things might I be missing out on due to stubbornness and pretension? Anyways, today, Gucci is in my top five favorite rappers of all time. I was heart broken in 2014 when I found out he was going back to jail, but it turns out, thank god he did.

I’ll begin by simply giving this book my recommendation. The Autobiography of Gucci Mane is an easy, exciting read, with a huge added bonus for any of his fans. I don’t think you need to be a big Gucci supporter in order to appreciate this book, but there are a lot of references to songs, albums, and people that may become tiresome if you aren’t. Because this book was rather straightforward, I’ll mention some of my biggest questions and reactions below, rather than boring you with critical reflection.

The book lists Gucci Mane as the author, but includes Neil Martinez-Belkin (NMB) as the co-author. How much of this was written by Gucci himself? 

This was a question I thought of frequently while reading. I wondered whether Gucci had recorded the book as notes to be transcribed by Martinez-Belkin, or whether Gucci himself sat down and penned it. The writing did sound like Gucci at times, but I couldn’t be sure. Finally, I found this wonderful interview with NMB, who cleared this up for me straight-away. Gucci did write the book, and only received editorial help from his co-author. Along with the normal editing tasks of an editor, NMB conducted interviews with many of Gucci’s friends and family, going over the stories Gucci wrote about. In many cases, NMB then went back to Gucci with that information, which subsequently sparked more memories and writing. So, I guess you could say that NMB facilitated the writing of this book, but did none of the actual writing. Just food for thought as you’re reading.

Throughout the book, Gucci uses his albums and hit songs as touchstones along his journey. Where is the accompanying soundtrack of mentioned tracks? 

I can’t tell you how many times I thought about this while reading. Some of the books most poignant anecdotes describe the process of creating songs, specifically those songs that proved significant to his career. Gucci has so much material that some of the earlier songs he mentions were unfamiliar to me. A playlist of each song he discusses would have been a super useful and enjoyable supplement to the autobiography, both for known and unknown songs. “First Day Out” is one of my favorite Gucci tracks of all time, but I still wanted to hear it when Gucci mentions Zaytoven losing his mind only four bars into the song. I wanted to lose my mind alongside Zay, as I had done on my own countless times, walking through the streets of New York yelling shit like, “No pancakes, just a cup of syrup!” Creating a playlist available on Youtube or some other streaming service would not have been difficult for Atlantic to do. If I wasn’t doing the majority of my reading on the wifi-less subway, I would have made my own Youtube playlist.

The section describing Gucci’s first encounter with DJ Burn One and the making of “Chicken Talk.” 

I had no idea DJ Burn One was white. I also had no idea he was the first one to talk Gucci into doing a mixtape. More than his albums, any Gucci fan knows that the true gems are scattered across his many mixtape projects. Chicken Talk, however, has always remained my favorite. Gucci was doing a lot of ecstacy, was back to selling drugs, and had complete freedom from his label with this release. None of that is necessarily good on its own, but it made for some authentic, gritty, and downright fun music. As he says himself, “More than any other release of mine, Chicken Talk captured my state of mind during the time I was making it…It’s a perfect time capsule and my favorite of all my mixtapes.” It’s Gucci’s favorite, too!

Apparently, when him and Burn One finished the mixtape, they tried to sell it at an Atlanta flea market. The proprietor of that market had evidently heard Gucci Mane was done, which was a realistic enough diagnosis, considering his upcoming album wasn’t gaining much traction. Instead of going home, the two bumped Chicken Talk from Burn One’s truck in the flea market parking lot, attracting a group of people and plenty of interested buyers. When the aforementioned proprietor saw what was going on, he came out a bought a bunch of copies. I’m a walkin’ lick, I’m a talkin’ brick!

I know I already mentioned it, but that story about the making of “First Day Out”…

This is best described in Gucci’s own words:

Deb organized a homecoming party at Metronome Studios the night I got out [of jail]. It was a big affair, with a whole bunch of important industry folks in attendance. The party was for everyone else, though. I was itching to work. As soon as Zay showed up I had him load up some beats to get the ball rolling.

A couple songs in, Zay waved me out of the booth. He had a request.

“Do something for me,” he said. “When I play this next one just go in. Don’t even think about a hook and don’t do any of those writtens. Let’s see what comes out.”

I had pages and pages of raps I’d written in jail, so those were the songs I started up with when I got back into the studio. I wanted to get them recorded so I could move on to new stuff. But I had no problem doing a freestyle for Zay…I stepped back into the booth and put the headphones on. Zay played the beat and I was off to the races.

I’m starting out my day with a blunt of purp

No pancakes, just a cup of syrup

Baking soda, pot, and a silver fork

You already know it’s time to go to work

“Damn!!! That’s it!!!”

As soon as I let those four bars off, my buddies outside the booth went crazy. I lost my momentum. I looked out the window to tell Zay to start the beat over, but he’d already gotten out of his chair.

“You know you’re killin’ this right now?” he said.

Killing what? I’d only rapped four bars. I wasn’t sure what Zay was talking about, but he wasnt alone in his thinking. We’d already made a bunch of songs and nothing had gotten a reaction close to this. Zay started up the beat again and I regained my focus and finished the freestyle.

…When I exited the booth every person in the studio had their eyes on me, looking bewildered. Zay had goose bumps. Holiday looked like he just watched me walk on water.

Incredible.

Side note: Gucci was the first person I ever heard yell the adlib “skrrrt!” In fact, aside from Jeezy, he was one of the first people I ever heard use adlibs. He’s a god damn pioneer.

Gucci almost died on a flight to Houston with his manager, Coach K. And he has a son?!

One of the things you notice while reading this book is how many times Gucci seemingly avoided death, or at the very least, grave injury. If anything had happened even slightly differently in various different threatening situations, Gucci would probably be dead. The run-in with Jeezy’s goon, his status as a cocaine kingpin, his behavior towards police in 2014 while carrying a weapon, and so on. One of the lesser known of these situations was a flight from Atlanta to Houston that flew way too close to a tornado, terrifying everyone on board, including Gucci. It’s at this point in the narrative that Gucci tells us he has a son:

The storm bellowed as I heard muted crying. I looked at Coach. We didn’t exchange any words but I knew we were thinking the same thing. Maybe this was it. We bowed our heads and all I could think of was my son.

I know what you’re thinking. What son? Truth is I didn’t know him all that well either. I’d only learned I had a child a year before. He was already ten months old. A girl I used to see had a baby and people were saying it looked like me. I hadn’t even known she was pregnant. I reached out and asked her if it was mine. She was unsure. I took a blood test and sure enough, I was the father of a little boy.

Gucci goes on to describe how he had not, up to that point, had much time to “embrace [his] new role as a father.” Between jail bids, his career, and his drug addiction, he had neglected to forge a bond with the child. With his life in the balance, Gucci thought only of his son. Sometimes it takes situations like that to wake us up.

More importantly here, can you imagine calling Gucci Mane dad?

An underlying theme throughout the autobiography is Gucci’s struggle with mental illness. Not only drug addiction, but also bi-polar disorder.

Mental illness has always lurked in Hip Hop’s shadows. From Geto Boyz’s “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me” to 2pac’s paranoia-laced recordings to Kid Cudi’s much reported struggles with addiction and self-harm, the topic has been there for a long time. Unfortunately, there has not been much hip hop-centered discussion around this topic up until recently. It felt refreshing to see Gucci speaking openly and honestly about these struggles, not just in one part of the book, but throughout the whole thing. In one situation outside the 2010 VMAs, Gucci lost it, throwing a stack of ten thousand dollars at the cameramen agitating him. This was only one situation of many, where Gucci appeared to succumb to his inner demons.

This would happen from time to time, whenever my benders would reach their tipping point and manifest in the form of bizarre behavior and volatile outbursts. Spells where I would zone out and gaze into space. Sometimes I’d be looking into the mirror, mumbling to myself, trying to make sense of thoughts that didn’t make any sense. Doctors had tried to give me medication for this before. Mood stabilizers. But I rarely took them. They made me even more sluggish. They zapped me of my energy, my creativity, my whole mojo.

I hope that Gucci’s frankness about his mental struggles inspires other rappers to open up, encouraging the genre as a whole to be more forthcoming on the topic. With many young, urban black men dealing with violence and suffering from PTSD, it probably should be more prominent than it is. Most recently, Chief Keef sidekick Fredo Santana opened up about his struggles with mental illness that to his drug abuse. A couple seizures, a kidney failure, and a liver failure later, Santana had this to say on Twitter:

Hopefully I can be the face to sho niggas to slow down an we got our whole life ahead of us fuck being rock stars gettin high I got ptsd…

This tweet was reminiscent of one Gucci sent out in 2014:

To all the young people who follow me I beg ya’ll stay away from codeine cough medicine it’s not cool to be in jail or early grave #guwop

Let’s keep this conversation going, hip hop.

So, what’s next for Gucci?

This isn’t a reaction to anything in the book, per se, but goodness, Gucci is a changed man since his last jail bid. In my opinion, he’s making better music than ever and sounds as focused as he’s ever been. He just got married yesterday on 10/17 and dropped another album late last week. The man is on a tear and I couldn’t be happier for him.

Other quick notes

Gucci launched the careers of so many different Atlanta rappers, and he gives each of them a part in this book. As a fan of hip hop in general, it was intriguing to read about early Migos, Young Thug, etc. There is also a brief but interesting section on Gucci’s unfortunate meeting with Scott Storch. Turns out the guy really is a tool, but probably also a drug addict, so I’ll give him a break. And lastly, Gucci goes over his full-fledged 2014 mental breakdown in detail, making for an uncomfortable and sad section called the “Nightmare on Moreland.”

It’s Gucci! Burr!

 

Next post: The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

The Ethereal Prose of Paul Harding’s “Tinkers”

Book: Tinkers

Author: Paul Harding

Genre: Fiction

 

I had never heard of this book before seeing it recommended at the Tattered Cover in Denver. I love independent bookstores (sorry, Barnes & Noble) and as they are a dying breed, I usually try to support them by buying a book. This was one of those books, and I probably would not have bought Tinkers otherwise.

Through the first fifty pages or so, I was not enjoying it. Harding’s prose felt winding and meandering in a way that was more tedious than interesting to me. The plot, too, felt like it was wandering to nowhere. I struggled to tell my girlfriend what the book was about, and realized I was not very sure either. Fortunately, I kept with it, and Harding continued to carve aimless channels of…beauty?!

At some point during the first third of the novel, after I had accepted that the plot was not very compelling, I realized that many of Harding’s sentences were truly beautiful observances of the divine among us–namely nature, but there was another more general, less pointed ethereal atmosphere being described. In fact, that is how I would describe the entirety of this generational elegy, which swerves off the conventional plot highway and takes readers on a scenic drive through memory, love, and a certain nameless emotion I won’t even try to describe. More so than memory or love, it was that nameless feeling that kept me reading. As the sentences floated off the page and away from the little plot that exists, I made futile grasps at its identity. Was it the sense of divinity in each of us? Was it, perhaps, the sense of divinity in our human connections? Was it a mixture of sublimity and beauty? Obviously I gave this a lot of thought, but never came up with anything definitive, so here is an example:

The true essence, the secret recipe of the forest and the light and the dark was far too fine and subtle to be observed with my blunt eye–water sac and nerves, miracle itself, fine itself: light catcher. But the thing itself is not the forest and light and dark, but something else scattered by my coarse gaze, by my dumb intention. The quilt of leaves and light and shadow and ruffling breezes might part and I’d be given a glimpse of what is on the other side; a stitch might work itself loose or be worked loose. The weaver might have made one bad loop in the foliage of a sugar maple by the road and that one loop of whatever the thread might be wound from–light, gravity, dark from stars–had somehow been worked loose by the wind in its constant worrying of white buds and green leaves and blood-and-orange leaves and bare branches and two of the pieces of whatever it is that this world is knit from had come loose from each other and there was maybe just a finger-widths hole, which I was lucky enough to spot in the glittering leaves from this wagon of drawers and nimble enough to scale the silver trunk and brave enough to poke my finger into the tear, that might offer to the simple touch a measure of tranquility or reassurance.

Life is difficult for those of us who have not learned the location of our brain’s off switch. Thought, as much as it is our own story’s narration, comes in degrees. Sometimes, trains of thought putt-putt along at a reasonable pace, allowing for logic and reason, but other times, those trains are barreling down the tracks at unstoppable speeds, so fast that what emerges is startling, awful, and amazing all at the same time. Some of us think like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and others think more like Gabriel Garcia Marquez–but the point is, the latter often becomes a force of its own. Thoughts emerging from characters in this book trailed on so far that they lost connection with the character, seeping into a more generalize ethereal feeling that encapsulates the whole novel. Howard, our thoughtful and epileptic protagonist, is both a victim and a beneficiary of these thoughts–while they often throw him into epileptic fits, they are also his most personal, most sacred feelings. I connected and empathized with this, not as an epileptic, but as a person both blessed and cursed with the sorts of thought patterns that run through Howard’s mind. They are beautiful and fantastic and surreal until you are pushed to the edge of what’s familiar, and look out, over the edge into the black.

Death, for instance, is one of those topics that often pushes me, my heels grinding in the dirt at the edge of my mind, towards and into that darkness. It isn’t bad, necessarily, but it is unknown, and uncomfortable, and sad. From pages 64-66, Howard’s son George ruminates on what it means to live and die (sorry it is so long–I could not bring myself to shorten such an incredible passage):

Eighty-four hours before he died, George thought, Because they are like tiles loose in a frame, with just enough space so they can all keep moving around, even if it’s only a few at a time and in one place, so that it doesn’t seem like they are moving, but the empty space between them, and that empty space is the space that is missing, the last several pieces of colored glass, and when those pieces are in place, that will be the final picture, the final arrangement. But those pieces, smooth and glossy and lacquered, are the dark tablets of my death, in gray and black, and bleached, drained, and until they are in place, everything else will keep on shifting. And so this end in confusion, where when things stop I never get to know it, and this moving is that space, is that what is yet to be, which is for others to see filled wherever it may finally be in the frame when the last pieces are fitted and the others stop, and there will be the stopped pattern, the final array, but not even that, because that final finitude will itself be a bit of scrolling, a pearlescent clump of tiles, which will generally stay together but move about within another whole and be mingled with in endless ways of other people’s memories, so that I will remain a set of impressions porous and open to combination with all the other vitreous squares floating about in whoever else’s frames, because there is always the space left in reserve for the rest of their own time, and to my great-grandchildren, with more space than tiles, I will be no more than the smoky arrangement of a set of rumors, and to their great-grandchildren I will be no more than a tint of some obscure color, and to their great-grandchildren nothing they ever know about, and so what army of strangers and ghosts has shaped and colored me back to Adam, until back to when ribs were blown from molten sand into the glass bits that took up the light of this world because they were made from this world, even though the fleeting tenants of those bits of colored glass have vacated them before they have had even the remotest understanding of what it is to inhabit them, and if they–if we are fortunate (yes, I am lucky, lucky), and if we are fortunate, have fleeting instants when we are satisfied that the mystery is ours to ponder, if never to solve, or even just rife personal mysteries, never mind those outside–are there even mysteries outside? a puzzle itself–but anyway, personal mysteries, like where is my father, why can’t I stop all the moving and look out over the vast arrangements and find by the contours and colors and qualities of light where my father is, not to solve anything but just simply even to see it again one last time, before what, before it ends, before it stops. But it doesn’t stop; it simply ends. It is a final pattern scattered without so much as a pause at the end, at the end of what, at the end of this.

I have thought on countless occasions of the grandfather I was never able to meet–of the uncle with few friends and family to carry on his memory–of my aunt, her ashes mixed in with those of her two dogs. When you consider the entirety of a life lived, its legacy held simply and solely in memories and minds, bits and pieces, it makes you want to cry. This book made me cry, and it was wonderful.

 

NEXT POST: The Autobiography of Gucci Mane by Gucci Mane and Neil Martinez-Belkin

The Potential Impact of “Evicted” and Other Ideas

Book: Evicted

Author: Matthew Desmond

Genre: Non-Fiction, Social Science

In an interview from Tupac: Resurrection, the late rapper famously proclaimed, “I think that rich people should live like poor people, and poor people should live like rich people, and it should change every other week.” Though impossible to put into practice, this idea sought out a way to engender empathy in a country that tends to ignore its most desperate citizens. Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted, took a cue from Tupac, choosing to live in Milwaukee’s poorest areas for several years as he did research for this book. The result is a work of empathy that those detached from the world of food stamps and rent assistance can connect with–and not in any voyeuristic, urban-decay-vacation kind of way. Instead, Desmond artfully reveals the American relationships that keep our poor on the meandering road of destitution. With these relationships operating primarily in the housing sector, he makes it very clear where the heart of America’s poverty problem lies.

BUT, as Desmond mentions in the “About this book” section, he wrote it in the third person voice for a reason. Eviction isn’t about its author as so many ethnographic studies are–think of a book like Gang Leader for a Day, which is as much about Sudhir Venkatesh’s experience as it is about Chicago’s gang life. Refreshingly, Desmond takes a step back from his own project, and lets the stories of Arleen, Scott, Doreen and others play out before our concerned eyes. And play out they do, as I had to remind myself a few times that I wasn’t reading a novel. If there is any shortcoming here, it is in the book’s marvelously crafted narratives that force the reader to remind his or herself that someone’s belongings really are being piled on the sidewalk–that Vanetta’s son really will have to forge a motherless life while his mom sits in jail–that Arleen is truly out of housing options with two children to take care of–that the stories present a real opportunity for true empathetic understanding. If presented as the author watching people experience poverty rather than people simply experiencing poverty, I think that potential for understanding is somewhat lost, and books like these wind up being mostly entertainment.

But alas, Mr. Desmond allows his subjects to dominate the narrative section, leaving his own experience and thoughts for the epilogue and the “about this book” section. This format worked for me in a rhetorical sense as well, given that the solutions and ideas Desmond presents at the end are preceded by a whole book’s worth of evidence. One of the ideas he has to curb poverty by way of housing is to implement a federal, universal housing voucher for all people under a certain income. This plan sounds costly and idealistic, but when you consider the many costs associated with eviction–homelessness, mental illness, hunger, etc–it actually wouldn’t cost much at all. The real question is, how much do we value our impoverished population and do we want to help them? Up until now, the answer to that two-pronged question is simple–we don’t. At least, we don’t value them as rightful American citizens, but rather as income generators for those opportunistic folks who know there’s plenty of money to be made off the poor. Desmond makes the point that poverty isn’t one-sided, as exploitation of the less fortunate is as much to blame for poverty as anything else. Raising the minimum wage is a cool thing, but it becomes much less cool when rents are rising right with it.

Another idea in this book, this time from the narrative piece, really resonated with me. Larraine, a trailer park resident Desmond follows throughout the book, frequently spends money on frivolous things to the chagrin of her friends and family, who often end up denying her help. At one point in the book, she buys a couple hundred dollar make-up kit instead of paying her utilities bills. In another, she uses the entirety of her month’s food stamp allowance on one meal, featuring lobster tails and other luxury foods, only to eat scraps the rest of the month. To implicate Larraine as her own enemy here, the primary catalyst for her constant struggles, is tempting. But, for Larraine and many others who experience grinding, daily poverty, those infrequent splurges represent perhaps the only material joy they get to have. For someone is born into poverty and remains poor, the horizon is awfully hard to see. Desmond says that for Larraine, poverty is a constant that she has submitted to and doesn’t expect to escape. Those few moments of relative freedom, in being able to buy what one wants, are precious.

And finally, a meta-note for this post. At the various times I was reading this book, I continually found myself without a pen. That is the reason for the lack of quotes here as well as the sort of scatterbrained form. More so than my other posts, which are all essentially reactions, this was a true, gut reaction. Next time, I’ll be sure to have a pen so my thoughts are a little more organized. Nonetheless, I HIGHLY suggest reading this book, regardless of where your interests lie.

 

Next post: Tinkers by Paul Harding

 

 

 

 

 

Pieces of Infinity: A Taoist Exploration of Eyedea’s “Here for You”

Book: The Way of Chuang Tzu

Author: Thomas Merton

Genre: Philosophy, Religion

In my last post, I mentioned that Thomas Merton’s The Way of Chuang Tzu would be the next topic of discussion. Being a handy guide for both learning Taoist ideas and understanding the historical context around them, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Merton begins the book by situating Chuang Tzu alongside other ancient Chinese philosophers such as Lao Tzu and Confucius. Once primed with some contextual knowledge, he launches into various Taoist poems and fable-like stories–or what he refers to in his note to readers as “free interpretative readings” of Chuang Tzu’s works. Having read another of Merton’s books, the fantastic and worthwhile Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, I am trusting of his interpretations. However, as I’m not a religious scholar or an experienced Taoist, I thought I would connect the Taoist ideas here to something I know much better: hip hop.

Deceased Minnesota rapper Eyedea made music about the struggles of living. His lyrics gravitated towards topics like mental illness and human connection rather than the various rap tropes that typically (and often unfairly) define the genre. My favorite of his songs, “Here For You,” reflects a Taoist belief system that would have made Merton smile.

The song opens with dialogue from a somewhat obscure movie called Pushing Tin, in which John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton converse:

Billy Bob: There is a way out of this mess and shit. You just cant think your way out of it. Thought is your enemy.

John: I know, I know. I got to think less. I had that thought actually.

Billy Bob: You have to let go.

John: Let go. Let go of what?

Billy Bob: Let go of you. I mean, think about it, what have you done for you lately?

John: I’m having trouble following you there, Russell.

Billy Bob: You have to jump in.

John: Jump in back on the scopes?

Billy Bob: No, in the water.

John: The river?

Billy Bob: Yes, jump in the river!

I have never seen Pushing Tin (it has a 48% on Rotten Tomatoes), so I’m not sure how this conversation is meaningful to John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton, but for Eyedea’s purpose, it provides a psychological lens for understanding the rest of the song. Chuang Tzu’s poem “Man is Born in Tao,” begins with the words, “Fish are born in water. Men are born in Tao.” Though Cusack fails to understand, Billy Bob essentially wants him to go with the flow. Overthinking and worrying are symptoms of man suffocating outside of Tao the same way a fish would suffocate outside of water. When we resist the flow of life by constantly overthinking and attempting to control events, we inevitably suffer like Cusack does in the snippet.

For nearly the entire first verse, Eyedea uses the “life as river” analogy to relay his message about non-control. It might be an overused comparison, but it works wonders for Eyedea’s purposes:

Were all born into this river without knowing how to swim
And eventually we learn how to keep this water under our chins
Some times this rivers so cold to be in
Freezing my soul, solidifying my skin
Regardless of how far I see, I never see my travels end
Were carried by the current, being driven by the wind
The scenery we pass, we’ll never see again
So we store it up as memories and don’t let go of them
Were under a spell thinking the river should go straight
We set goals and desires to control our own fate
But all the pain we experience is a result of our expectations
Because it’s the rivers nature to twist and turn

In Chuang Tzu’s “When Life was Full There Was No History,” he reminisces about prehistory–a time when people “loved each other and did not know this was ‘love thy neighbor’, when people lived freely together giving and taking, and did not know they were generous.” Though Chuang Tzu appears to be taking aim at the political environment of his age, his words can be applied in a much more personal way. Expectations, hopes, goals, and dreams seem harmless, even positive, but from a Taoist point of view, these all point towards a specific vision of oneself. Legacies and histories are born in expectations and hopes, either setting oneself up for disappointment when they don’t happen, or disillusionment when they do. In a recent television show I was watching, a wife screamed at her husband, “Life doesn’t happen to you! You make it,” or something like that. For both Eyedea and Chuang Tzu, letting life happen to you is the only way to achieve anything resembling inner peace.

About seventy-five percent through the verse, Eyedea has encouraged his fellow humans to let the current take them, but he has not provided enough of a reason to do this. What is the river, who controls it, and why should I let it control me? The last six lines apprehend these questions:

I stare up at the naked moon, and she stares down at me
Outside thoughts boundaries, I’m all I look outward to see.
The universe is not something separate from yourself
I know you feel alone, but that’s why I’m here to help
I know you feel alone, but just look up at the stars
And everything that is out there is what you really are

Outside thoughts boundaries, I’m all I look outward to see is perhaps more Taoist than anything in Merton’s book. We need to trust the river’s guidance because the river is us. Our consciousness may have become detached from the life force that we all share, but we nonetheless share it. We are all, like the wonderful Neil Degrasse Tyson likes to remind us, star stuff. If we can remember that we are quite literally made of the same stuff flowing down the river and shed the oppositional stance we take towards everything that is perceived separate from ourselves, then we may flow down the river of life without worry. Good and bad, in this equation, are indistinguishable, as the river simply flows.

In his second verse, Eyedea takes the river idea a step further. If we are all the river, then we are all in each other as well:

Now I want you to know
The role you play is part of the whole
Without you it couldn’t be, and I mean that with compassion
So if you ever need anything, I mean anything at all
I’m here for you; all you gotta do is ask man
I’m here for you, in the same way that you’re here for me
Each person in an intricate piece of infinity
I feel that if you could see what I see
Then we as humanity could be free
I’m here for you, not for any self centered reasons
But because existence is interdependent and all is related,
Connected as different manifestations of one single mind
You ain’t isolated from the world even though it feels like that sometimes

In this verse, Eyedea has a suggestion for anyone that feels lonely, unloved, forgotten, or undervalued–look within yourself, for we are all there. Chuang Tzu’s story “Confucius and the Madman” considers utility and the cost of such. Seeing Confucius, the madman approaches him and says, “The grease that feeds the light devours itself. The cinnamon tree is edible: so it is cut down,” and so on. After a few more examples, the madman says, “No one seems to know, how useful it is to be useless.” Usefulness is related to control, which is in turn related to ego. Why do we need to be useful when we are all one entity? Rather than railing against utility, Chuang Tzu is concerned with uneven ideas. It is not that the madman is better than those other things that are useful, but rather he is equal to them. There is no usefulness without use, no you without me. This interdependence is the place where a several-thousand-year-old Chinese philosopher and a modern-era Rhymesayer meet. Each person, as Eyedea posits, is an intricate piece of infinity. If we are one, then I guess we are as alone as it gets–together.

Miss you, Mikey.

Next post: Evicted by Matthew Desmond

 

 

 

A Road Runner Cartoon in Blank Verse: On “The Crying of Lot 49”

roadrunner

Book: The Crying of Lot 49

Author: Thomas Pynchon

Genre: Fiction

Most people enjoy some activity in their lives that presents a challenge. Some people like Sudokus, some like jigsaw puzzles, some like the Dead Souls video game franchise, but for me, I like to challenge myself with difficult literature. Being part of the challenging, postmodernist literary canon, Pynchon has long been on my list of authors to investigate. Gravity’s RainbowV., and The Crying of Lot 49 have all been sitting on my bookshelves for several years now, and since it was the shortest of the bunch, I decided that Lot 49 would be a reasonable introduction to Pynchon.

I really expected to like this book. With a predilection for postmodernist literature, I’m usually tolerant of books with meandering plot lines, or in some cases, no plot lines at all. In those cases, the themes and ideas, the depth of characters, and the quality of the prose make up for what would otherwise be really boring writing. Unfortunately, The Crying of Lot 49 falls short for me in several of those areas.

But, before I go into my qualms with the novella, I’ll describe a few things that I did truly enjoy. The naming of characters, which many have commented on before me, is genius: Oedipa Maas, Pierce Inverarity, Mucho Maas, Dr. Hilarius, Manny Di Presso, and on. These names are ridiculous, and in some cases obvious allusions, but they still manage to carry depth that I haven’t found in many other examples of character naming. I also very much enjoyed the sections featuring Oedipa’s husband, Mucho Maas, who I thought had a potentially compelling personal story. Unfortunately, the book almost immediately moves away from Mucho, and by the next chapter, Oedipa is already involved in an extramarital affair with a frankly dull character named Metzger. Pynchon only returns to Mucho briefly later in the book, and it was no coincidence that his section felt, once again, like an oasis in an otherwise arid novel. But, mainly, my biggest positive about the book is its frequently employed hilarious (Hilarius?) sentences. The high point for me in this novel came, sadly I must say, on pages 48-49:

So they were, until well after the sun had set and Miles, Dean, Serge, and Leonard and their chicks, by holding up the glowing roaches of their cigarettes like a flipcard section at a football game to spell out alternate S’s and O’s, attracted the attention of the Fangoso Lagoons Security Force, a garrison against the night made up of one-time cowboy actors and L.A. motorcycle cops.

The beauty of this sentence, along with the absurdity of the conjured image, speak to Pynchon’s affinity for crafting subtle comedy amid flawless prose. Sentences like that one provided me with the momentum I needed to continue reading this book–the momentum I was not deriving from the plot or the characters. Here’s one more example among many of well-crafted comedy, where Pynchon is describing the final act of a play the main character has gone to see:

The fifth act, entirely an anticlimax, is taken up by the bloodbath Gennaro visits on the court of Squamuglia. Every mode of land mines, a trained falcon with envenom’d talons, is employed. It plays, as Metzger remarked later, like a Road Runner cartoon in blank verse. At the end of it about the only character left alive in a stage dense with corpses is the colorless administrator, Gennaro.

Unfortunately, and here is where the negativity begins, the phrase “like a Road Runner cartoon in blank verse,” would be a bit of foreshadowing for what the rest of the novel had in store. If I may be a little reductionist in my description of the plot, forgive me, but it appeared to amount to nothing more than Oedipa investigating a mystery that barely warranted the title of mystery in the first place, frantically searching for answers when nothing much seemed worthy of her frenzy. Nothing really seemed to be on the line. Each successive dive deeper into the bland “conspiracy” was met with an equally bland character. Characters like Mike Fallopian and Genghis Cohen, while they sport intriguing names, don’t do much of anything, say much of anything, and certainly don’t make the reader feel much of anything. These characters felt like one-dimensional plot-movers in a story with an uninteresting plot. The blurb on the back of the book reads, “The highly original satire about Oedipa Maas, a woman who finds herself enmeshed in a worldwide conspiracy, meets some extremely interesting characters, and attains a not inconsiderable amount of self-knowledge.” It seems to me that “interesting” here is being equated with “cartoonish,” because while the book featured lots of absurd characters, I don’t recall any of them being particularly interesting. And what exactly did Oedipa learn? That she should hold onto and cherish her hallucinations and obsessions, as Dr. Hilarius suggests? Or that giving into hallucinations and obsessions can lead one to lose everything? If there’s some special insight here, I missed it.

Normally, I would be more tolerant of the above complaints if the book managed to blow me away with an exploration of interesting ideas. While this is certainly an aspect of the book that I would like to hear from others on, I did not find many compelling ideas here. Oedipa’s painfully meaningless search for answers mirrors, in a general way, the fruitless and endless search by human beings for existential purpose/meaning. That seemed obvious, and marginally interesting, but definitely not thought-provoking. The book also explores the failures of human communication, as Oedipa both fails to communicate with others and to find people who are able to communicate efficiently with her. But again, nothing about these ideas felt compelling. It was as if the book itself was taking me on the same pointless journey that Oedipa embarks on, and honestly, I don’t appreciate it, Thomas. If you are going to steep me in a Road Runner cartoon of a novel, with a plot that felt as frenetic as it was trivial, it better present meaning elsewhere.

With that said, I’m still interested in checking out the other Pynchon novels I mentioned earlier–they just got moved down the list a bit. I invite you to disagree with me and school me on the merits of this book, because after all, I really wanted to like it.

Next post: The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton

 

Truth and Storytelling in “The Things They Carried”

Warning: Contains spoilers

Book: The Things They Carried

Author: Tim O’Brien

Genre: Short Story Fiction

Typically, before I choose to read a book, watch a movie, or listen to an album, I know a good deal about it beforehand. I read a synopsis, a review, a blog post–essentially anything that doesn’t contain spoilers but gives me an idea of what I’m getting into. For no real intentional reasons, I went into The Things They Carried blind. I knew it was a book about Vietnam and thought it was a novel, but aside from that, I knew nothing. From the initial few chapters, I could tell this wasn’t going to be a conventional novel and had a hunch it was moving in the memoir direction. I foresaw the inherent contradictions in writing half-novel, half-memoir, but figured the book would become more clear in its progression. After reading the chapter titled “How to Tell a True War Story,” I felt as though the desired clarity had finally come.

We’ve all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.

Is it true? The answer matters. You’d feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen–and maybe it did, anything’s possible–even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.

In this chapter, O’Brien asserts the idea that in war, some truths exist outside of true experience. Truth here seems to be more related to feeling and atmospheric accuracy. A war story is only true insofar as it relates the appropriate feeling. A story that embellishes a few things here and there to really describe a feeling is truer than the story that fails to express that feeling. Objective truth, in this realm, is irrelevant. I continued with this in mind, but I couldn’t help but wonder what parts were objectively true and which weren’t. I could see O’Brien shaking his head at me. I resolved to take the basic details of each story as true, and conceded that the finer details existed only to tell a war truth–something less than objectively true, but emotionally honest. I read the book through that lens for the rest of the book, until I got to page 171.

Somewhat abruptly, O’Brien reveals the following:

It’s time to be blunt. I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier.

Almost everything else is invented.

But it’s not a game. It’s a form. Right here, now, as I invent myself, I’m thinking of all I want to tell you about why this book is written as it is. For instance, I want to tell you this: twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe. I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough. I remember his face, which was not a pretty face, because his jaw was in his throat, and I remember feeling the burden of responsibility and grief. I blamed myself. And rightly so, because I was present.

But listen. Even that story is made up.

If you’ve seen the first Saw movie, do you remember the dead guy in the middle of the room who stands up towards the end of the movie, and shocked, you realize that your whole experience of the movie up to that moment has been, in some way, false? That’s how reading this felt. Somehow, even after all the rhetoric about story-truth vs. happening-truth, I still felt a little betrayed. When just a couple chapters before O’Brien is describing his experience of killing a man, hunched over the man’s body, unable to move or speak, staring, I sympathized with O’Brien the man. I thought about the author of this book I was reading and what impact killing a man must have had on his psychology–that even the book I was reading had been affected by this. I thought about his family and the moral dilemma present in trying to explain this to a child. I thought about the power of the scene he described. And then, it was all a lie. It didn’t happen. The sympathy I felt for the man was based on an event that never occurred. However, after reminding myself of the “How to Tell a True War Story” chapter, I realized that that story is true to the extent that it expresses O’Brien’s guilt for participating in a war. Whether or not O’Brien actually killed someone is irrelevant when you consider the guilt one must feel having been there at all. Coming back from the war, he must have felt at least partially responsible for many deaths, and the story of the man he killed served to represent that in its fullest feeling.

And still, even though I understand O’Brien’s intent, and find it incredibly thought-provoking, I couldn’t help but wonder what parts of what stories were true. One of the soliders in his company, Kiowa, died under mortar fire in a muddy field. O’Brien describes visiting this field with his daughter years later, remembering Kiowa. I assumed this story was true–it took place in current day, featured his real-life daughter, and memorialized a friend who truly did die. But then I realized, the only part we really know is true is the part about Kiowa dying (it is confirmed in other parts of the book)–did he even go to Vietnam with his daughter years after the war? Immediately after thinking this, I remind myself that this thought process runs counter to the whole thesis of O’Brien’s book. Happening-truth, objective-truth, is irrelevant in a war story. I thought myself around this circle about a hundred times over the last sixty or so pages of the book.

But, by the end of the book, I finally felt comfortable calling this fiction. This work is about the relationship between storytelling and truth, skirting (SKRRRT!) the idea that a work of literature has to embody one or the other. This book is more Winesburg, Ohio than it is a war memoir, and I enjoyed coming to that conclusion myself. One look at the Wikipedia page for this book would’ve told me as much, so I’m pleased that I never looked.

If you’re interested, here’s a video of O’Brien himself explaining his feelings towards the book 20 years later.

NEXT POST:

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon