Great Moments in Literature

“Anna drew on the cigarette, enjoying the dry heat inside her mouth, and let the smoke scatter into the wind. It was dirty, but a dirtiness she liked — akin to the girl welders eating their lunches sitting on the floor. She and Nell smoked in silence. Anna looked across Wallabout Bay at the hammerhead crane bent against the sky. A few days before, she’d watched it lift a cement truck off the ground as if it were a die-cast toy. Beyond the crane sprawled the Williamsburg Bridge and then the low buildings on the shore of Manhattan, windows like gold flakes in the dusty sky.”

—Jennifer Egan, Manhattan Beach, 2017

 

FIVE WORLDS AS HEADS FROZE THE MOMENT — AND BRIDGET WAS AWED TO THAT HAIR-RAISING SILENCE ALWAYS FOLLOWING A GASP. I‘D SUCKED AIR WITH PRICKLED SCALP, TOO, THE FIRST TIME I’D SEEN IT: FIVE CONCENTRIC LAYER-WORLDS, TUCKED ONE INSIDE THE OTHER, THE CEILING OF EACH STUDDED WITH ARTIFICIAL SUNS LIGHTING THE LAYER BELOW…OCEANS OF AIR PERMITTING TRAVEL FROM ONE WORLD TO THE NEXT, AND EVEN ALL THE WAY DOWN TO THE CORE. THE WHOLE THING WAS A SYMBOLIC REALIZATION OF TIME, SPACE, HISTORY’S MYSTERY, AND THAT WHICH COULD UNRAVEL THE WHOLE BALL OF YARN. AN ONION WITH FIVE LAYERS AND A NASTY CENTER — OR FIVE APPLES SHARING THE SAME WORM-RIDDEN CORE. BUT DON’T ASK ME HOW IT CAME TO BE; I HAD OTHER PROBLEMS…”

—Doug Moench, AZTEC ACE, Vol. 1, No. 1, “The Mexica Serpent,” 1984

Harlan Ellison, 1934 – 2018

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When he was interviewed on British television in 1976, this is how Harlan Ellison was introduced by journalist Mavis Nicholson, after she said, “I will explain to viewers what your publicists have told me about you”:

You were born in Cleveland, Ohio. You’ve been a lumberjack, a fisherman, a crop picker, a hired gunman, a truck driver, a cook, a salesman, an actor, editor, writer of novels, short stories, and screenplays. And apparently you’re also a generalized, all-around gadfly to the establishment. What’s more, say your publicists, you’re five-foot-five-inches, blue-eyed, dark, and have an explosive personality, a devastating wit, and a sort of almost frightening articulacy.

As this litany is recited — putting Ellison in a rare state of patient silence — the man watches with a variety of reactions flickering across his face: amusement, skepticism, quiet assent. By the end, there’s the familiar stoking furnace of animosity behind his eyes. After a comic aside (“I wonder how they omitted mentioning that I was responsible for World War II”), Ellison provides his own biography. “I see myself as a writer,” he says. “I’m a professional liar.”

In Nicholson’s introduction, the word that must have rankled the most was “gadfly.” A few years later, in the opening essay of his collection Shatterday, Ellison writes: “Gadfly is what they call you when you are no longer dangerous, when the right magazines publish your work and you don’t have to seek out obscure publications as home for the really mean stuff, when they ask you to come and discuss matters of import with the ‘celebrities’ on the Johnny Carson Show.”

The notion of Ellison sapped of all his danger is ludicrous. A fiery soul with a voluminous vocabulary, Ellison was unyielding in combat, quick to be triggered and drawing evident satisfaction from the authority of purpose he brought to any intellectual tangle. By at least one accounting, Ellison had over 1700 short stories to his name, along with a towering assortment of other writing, including novels and novellas, screenplays, comic book stories, and essays of all sorts. He was equally prolific in conversation, his turbine brain dispensing perfectly articulated assertions, counterarguments, iron-clad justifications, and insults that were simultaneously devastating and infused with a challenging camaraderie. In a 2008 interview for The Onion AV Club, conducted by Tasha Robinson, Ellison’s verbal largesse necessitated two installments. His answer to the first, very simple question (asking his impression of a recent documentary about him) ran to nearly 1500 words all on its own.

And Ellison knew how to wield words like few others. Spinning fictions mostly from fantastical imaginings, he rapped out sentences that were master classes in shaping language for maximum impact. And his words had edges, like rusty razors. He wrote to confront, not to soothe. He took it as a noble calling. In the same Shatterday essay I cribbed from above, Ellison addresses this tendency directly, sharing his preferred rejoinder any time someone lobbed the aghast accusation “You only said that to shock!” Ellison writes:

My response is always the same:

“You bet your ass, slushface. Of course I said it to shock you (or wrote it to shock you). I don’t know how you perceive my mission as a writer, but for me it is not a responsibility to reaffirm your concretized myths and provincial prejudices. It is not my job to lull you with a false sense of rightness of the universe. This wonderful and terrible occupation of recreating the world in a different way, each time fresh and strange, is an act of revolutionary guerilla warfare, I stir up the soup. I inconvenience you. I make your nose run and your eyes water. I spend my life and miles of visceral material in a glorious and painful series of midnight raids against complacency. It is my lot to wake with anger every morning, to lie down at night even angrier. All in pursuit of one truth that lies at the core of every jot of fiction ever written: we are all in the same skin…but for the time it takes to read these stories I merely have the mouth. You see before you a child who never grew up, who does not know it’s socially unacceptable to ask, ‘Who farted?”

Embedded in that manifesto of proud demolition of cultural niceties is a underappreciated truth about Ellison. Despite the perpetually blooming cantankerous bearing that defined his place in the solar system, Ellison was deep down a humanist. Granted, he had a high, exacting standard for which humans were deserving of his precious attention, and he rendered judgment with a comet’s speed. He had no truck for stupidity — surely believing it to be the ultimate betrayal of the limitless possibilities of a mind equipped to expand through vigorous education. (Likely the most enduring quote in the well-stocked Ellison canon will be: “You are not entitled to your opinion, you are entitled to your informed opinion. If you are not informed on the subject, then your opinion counts for nothing.”) Yet his fiction is made sturdier by his evident sympathy, even when he is obligated to play the role of cold overlord and send his characters somersaulting into dismay.

It’s simply that Ellison’s version of humanism doesn’t regress into dewy-eyed, blandly accepting wonderment. Ellison instead meets humanity on its own messy terms, accepting and admiring the infinite complexities. In the documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth, expounding on his dismissal of those who claim to “have a relationship with God,” Ellison notes that his brand of atheism is partially fueled by a rejection of the way a belief in a higher power diminishes the uncommon marvel of the individual, undermining personal accountability and foolishly rejecting our capability for self-invention. He says:

I think it is presumptuous, and I think it is silly. Because it makes you believe that you are less that what you can be. As long as you can blame everything on some unseen deity, you don’t ever have to be responsible for your own behavior. And I think that is the ultimate mark of humanity. We were given, in our toolbox, tools to build ethics, courage, kindness, friendship, ratiocination — the ability to think, to work problems out logically — dreams, imagination, things that make us want to go to the stars …. We want to make ourselves better.

Ellison’s scraps and diatribes were endlessly entertaining, but I’ll ultimately remember him more for his enthusiasms, be it collecting with car the stories of those he admired or the clear satisfaction he took with swinging at philosophical questions large and small with the lead pipe of reason. He made the most of his time on this plane, living with an uncommon zest. Ellison hurled his mind at the universe and gave the rest of us the gift of witnessing the resulting nova.

From the Archive — My Writers: Anthony Bourdain

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I occasionally write remembrances of famed individuals after they die, if the performer or writer of figure of some other note held a certain significance for me. Anthony Bourdain qualifies, mightily, and yet I’ve struggled with the idea of alchemizing my thoughts into words on a digital page. This is partially attributable to the shock of his death. Also, I’ve encountered so many others with far better stories to tell (or at least capability to summarize the importance of his most recent work with admirable succinctness). I feel I have so little of worth to add, especially since I would largely be reiterating what I wrote about him in the “My Writers” series, a post that went up exactly two years ago tomorrow. But I also feel compelled to not let the moment fully past without sharing. For the record, this is the passage of Kitchen Confidential that relates to the opening line:

global

It’s a small matter, far less important or profound that any of the stories I link to above. This passage relates to the directness and clarity of Bourdain as a writer, qualities he never relinquished, even when he employed more muscular, heated, and complicated language, often in the name of ferocious explications of injustice. He was a good person, and he relentlessly worked to be yet better, a growing process that he willingly experienced in a very public fashion.

Anyway, this is what I once wrote. It is woefully inadequate as a celebration and commemoration of his complicated contribution to the greater culture, but it’s what I have today.

I own a Global kitchen knife because of Anthony Bourdain. Kitchen Confidential, originally published in 2000, was one of those rare books that became a sensation, stirring up interest among a wide range of readers, most of them charged up by the sense they were receiving a glimpse of something wonderfully secretive about the restaurant industry. At the time, Bourdain was the head chef at New York’s Brasserie Les Halles, but he was also an accomplished enough writer that he had a couple food-themed crime novels under his belt. Kitchen Confidential was his coming out as a nonfiction writer, providing a memoirish examination of the hardscrabble romanticism of a life in professional kitchens interspersed with some gut-level philosophizing over what was and wasn’t legit in the booming foodie and celebrity chef cultures. His disdain over the mush that emanates from a garlic press caused me to drive that tool out of our household kitchen, and his discussion of kitchen knives, insisting the gauntlets toted in black cloth bags by many chefs were entirely unnecessary when one good, sharp blade of Japanese steel would do for the vast majority of tasks, was enough to make us seek out one of offering of his suggested brand. That Global knife still resides in our kitchen, getting use most every night.

The success of Kitchen Confidential changed everything for Bourdain, most notably precipitating a television career that’s nabbed him a load of Emmy nominations and two of the actual trophies, not to mention leading to his current status as a near-savior of CNN. It also led to him (or essentially him) being played by Bradley Cooper. Bourdain also became a favorite interview subject, which often involved others trying to provoke him into reviving his withering commentary on other famous culinary figures, particularly those drawing some sort of paycheck from Food Network, a favorite early target. He played along for awhile before eventually starting to demure, partially out of a recognition that he was unmistakably joining their celebrity ranks, but also as an extension of the pointed thoughtfulness that informed his writing in the first place. Now that he was no longer the anonymous loudmouth in the back tossing out invective, he had a clear instinct to be properly informed in his assessments, thus he had an episode of one of his shows in which he sat with former target Emeril Lagasse, ate his food, and tried to understand the man who he once reduced to a clown spouting catch phrases. Not only did Bourdain acknowledge the skill of the fare put before him, he grew fascinated and impressed enough with this former adversary to write him a scene of high dignity in HBO’s Treme.

It’s that level of intellectual integrity that keeps me coming back to Bourdain’s words, whether on the page or for his shows, for which he’s usually the sole credited writer. There’s consistently great material in the collection The Nasty Bits, much of it openly wrestling with the misgivings Bourdain has about his elevated stature or the conflicted feelings he has when a place, a person, or a plate of food challenges his firmly-held preconceptions. He’s an opinionated person who allows himself to be convinced otherwise, at least if the about face is earned. (Granted, by his own accounting he’ll just cave sometimes, as when he claimed he softened his stance on Rachael Ray because she sent him a fruit basket.) Sometimes that can lead him down an unfortunate avenue, as with his unapologetic championing of The Taste, the cooking competition show he co-produced and co-hosted which was as shammy and contrived as any food television program not involved manufactured drama over the baking and decoration of cakes. Overall, though, the quality of openness to different viewpoints and experiences makes his writing and commentary smarter and better. And seriously, that Global knife is fantastic.

Great Moments in Literature

“They had dozens of sexual partners before they married each other. Dance floor romances, Ibiza flings. The nineties, ecstatic decade! They were married though they needn’t have married, and though both had sworn they never would be. It is hard to explain—in that game of musical chairs—why they would have stopped, finally, at each other. Kindness, as a quality, had something to do with it. Many things were easy to find on those dance floors, but kindness was rare.”

—Zadie Smith, NW, 2012

 

“EVEN THOUGH YOU’VE NEVER SPOKEN TO ME … EVEN THOUGH I KNOW WHO YOU TRULY ARE … I TRULY LOVE YOU WITH A PASSION NONE MAY EVER MATCH IN THIS STAR SYSTEM! TO PROVE THIS LOVE, I’LL PRESENT YOU WITH A TOKEN OF MY AFFECTIONS — A TOKEN SUCH AS NO LOVER IN HISTORY COULD EVER MATCH! THIS DAY, I GIVE YOU EARTH!

—Jim Starlin, CAPTAIN MARVEL, Vol. 1, No. 31, “The Beginning of the End!,” 1974

My Writers — Gillian Flynn

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Appropriately, I think, Gillian Flynn locked me in for good when I started reading one of her books in a drug store. I was waiting on a prescription, and I wandered over the the dispiritingly sparse selection of paperbacks. A copy of Dark Places, Flynn’s second novel was there, so I picked it up and started reading. Quickly rapt, I felt a pang of regret when my name was read over the business’s loudspeaker, beckoning me to the back to retrieve my pharmaceuticals. That, my friends, is the sign of a good writer.

Dark Places wasn’t my first experience with Flynn. I’d read Gone Girl when it was the novel of the moment. Although I loved it, especially admiring her brilliantly deployed mid-novel twist, it somehow felt easy for me to preemptively disregard her other works of fiction. Maybe it was due to some of the more churlish critics, quick to dismiss Gone Girl as a fluke, even when delivering generally favorable assessments. It could have been attributable to my own biases, since I’d read plenty of Flynn’s words when she toiled for Entertainment Weekly, mostly as the second-string TV writer, and I didn’t recall thinking she delivered anything all that special. I should have known better. Television reviews and darkly comic crime novels are wildly different beasts. I believe I could write a pretty dang good essay on the bygone TV drama Life on Mars, but I more confident I don’t have a Gone Girl in me.

I’ve read all three of Flynn’s novels, and I’ve had the same experience with each. I appreciate the caustic comic elements and the ruthless plumbing of the darker corners of human nature. More uncommonly, there’s always a point, around midway through the book, when my need to barrel through to the end becomes almost compulsive. I’m not necessarily caught up in the mysteries she ticks through or hooked by Flynn’s chapter-ending cliffhangers (though she’s exceptionally good at those). Instead, I simply have an intellectual hunger to consume the totality of it in a way I’ve rarely experienced since high school, when I was inclined to decide that nourishing sleep on a school night was less important than finding out how The Dead Zone ends.

Within that swelling obsession lies my satisfaction in the drug store as ground zero for my zeal for Flynn’s writing. She provides a fiercely modern version of the dime store novels from decades ago, the pulpy adventures that were bourbon-laced cotton candy for the mind. There’s no slight there. Flynn exhibits the same ferocity, fearlessness, wit, and bracing economy of language that makes the acknowledged masters of the once-disreputable form considered some of the worthier residents in the pantheon of U.S. literature. Like the efforts of those predecessors, Flynn’s work lands with a sharp, satisfying smack.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

Great Moments in Literature

“Lila Mae removed the two suitcases from the back of the pickup truck. The suitcases were new, with a formidable casing of green plastic. Scratchproof, supposedly. Her father had only been able to afford them because they were, manufacturer’s oaths aside, scratched—gouged, actually, as if an animal had taken them in its fangs to teach them about hubris.”

—Colson Whitehead, The Intuitionist, 1999

 

“ELSEWHERE, THE MAN KNOWN AS KRAVEN DEMONSTRATES HIS OWN UNIQUE GREATNESS … MOVING SWIFTLY, SILENTLY, AND, ABOVE ALL, CALMLY! NO JUNGLE CAT WAS EVER MORE CERTAIN OF ITS INTENT — AND WITHIN MINUTES HIS TASK IS FINISHED!

—Denny O’Neil, AMAZING SPIDER-MAn, Vol. 1, No. 209, “To Salvage My Honor!,” 1980

Great Moments in Literature

“I began to understand home when Riv and I slept next to each other and Riv told me stories in the dark. Once, River told me about the ocean. He said: We got so much water where I’m from. It come down from the north in rivers. Pool in bayous. Rush out to the ocean, and that stretch to the ends of the earth that you can see. It changes color, he said, like a little lizard. Sometimes stormy blue, sometimes cool gray. In the early mornings, silver. You could look at that and know there’s a God, he said to me as the other gunmen coughed and tossed. Maybe one day, when you and me get out of here, you could come down and see it, Riv said.”

—Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing, 2017

 

“THOU HAVE DARED TO DISOBEY MINE ORDERS IMPERIAL! I HAVE FORBAD THY VISIT TO EARTH … AND YET … THERE, BEFORE MINE EYES, THOU DO STAND ON THE PLANET OF THE MORTALS! IF WITH MORTALS THOU WOULDST DWELL … AS POWERLESS AS THEY SHALT THOU BE! I HAVE SPOKEN! SO BE IT!

—Stan Lee, THOR, Vol. 1, No. 148, “Let There Be…Chaos!,” 1968