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

Great Moments in Literature

“Hints of robustness survived in him, more than a hint of primitive good looks, and Margaret, noting the spine that might have been straight, and the chest that might have broadened, wondered whether it paid to give up the glory of the animal for a tail coat and a couple of ideas. Culture had worked in her own case, but during the last few weeks she had doubted whether it humanized the majority, so wide and so widening is the gulf that stretches between the natural and the philosophic man, so many the good chaps who are wrecked in trying to cross it. She knew this type very well—the vague aspirations, the mental dishonesty, the familiarity with the outsides of books. She knew the very tones in which he would address her.”

—E.M Forster, Howards End, 1910

 

“YOU MISJUDGE ME, MY DEAR. THIS IS A QUESTION NOT OF MURDER, BUT OF BUSINESS EFFICIENCY …AND ADVANCEMENT.”

—Roger Stern, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, Vol. 1, No. 236, “Kill or Be Killed!,” 1979

My Writers — Emma Cline

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Emma Cline has only published one novel, but it’s a dandy. The Girls, which first hit shelves in 2016, in the late nineteen-sixties. It centers on a young teenager named Evie, who falls in with a group of slightly older girls who are part of a makeshift community that resembles a commune or a cult, depending on the level of skepticism brought to observation process. That the group is clearly modeled on the Manson family is a tip as to which way Cline views it.

The book is marked by vivid, creative language that occasionally tornadoes up Franzen-esque descriptive curlicues, but Cline never seems to be showing off in the common manner of first-time novelists with something to prove. Instead, the story is most notably for how firmly its grounded in an astute examination of Evie’s psychology, beginning with the depths of her need that makes the group appealing in the first place, and including the trepidation and quiet clamoring for acceptance that keeps drawing in deeper to toxic and dangerous places. Cline shows how fierce misgivings and acquiescent participation can exist in the same moment.

Cline’s depiction of a young woman trapped in ugly circumstances by personal manipulation helped make The Girls one of the buzziest novels of 2016. One year later, it’s even more poignant, as the delayed justice of women openly naming the men who’ve harassed and oppressed them proceeds unabated. And it’s picked up an added resonance as Cline has found herself the target of a plagiarism suit mounted by a bitter ex-boyfriend making ludicrous claims such as the shared presence of a body brush in Cline’s novel and one of his earlier short stories is damning proof of cold-hearted theft.

Naturally, the legal to and fro includes vicious attacks attesting to Cline supposedly using feminine wiles to entrap the weak, susceptible male, stealing away his talent in the process. The argument cynically traffics in the misogynistic notions that a young woman (Cline is still in her twenties) couldn’t possibly have written so successful a work, while adding a heaping side of succubus characterization. The patriarchal disdain for women couldn’t be more clear in the legal filing, which sputters its indignation that “Cline was not the innocent and inexperienced naïf she portrayed herself to be, and had instead for many years maintained numerous ‘relations’ with older men and others, from whom she extracted gifts and money.” When the relationship in question began, Cline was not yet of legal drinking age and the male who would become her accuser was thirty-three, yet she is depicted as the cunning, worldly manipulator.

The charges hurled at Cline would be laughable if they weren’t so sadly typical. In my estimation, the contrived attempt at ginning up scandal only makes Cline’s words more important, more resonant, more true. And I have no doubt they are absolutely hers.

 

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