Monday, April 30, 2007

Non sequitir.

Generally, although irony will never die, I am of the opinion that non sequitir as a humorous device is all but dead. There is no money in absurdism, as the laughs it can get have already been obtained. That being said, I still dig naturally occurring non-sequitir. For example, the other day I bought a cigarette lighter and realized a day later that it had a sea shell on it and the inscription: "Amorous feelings of beach."

What the hell does THAT mean?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. 1922-2007: A Disjointed Eulogy, A Defense, a Big "Up-Yours" to the Academe Who Wishes to Sell him Short

So, like many who claim to be somewhat literarily minded, I was a bit saddened by the passing of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. this week. Vonnegut was something of a hero to me. He has often been relegated to mere fodder for masturbating, zit-faced teenage boys who don't know how to talk to girls, but I cannot help but defend his footprint on the literary and cultural landscape of 20th (and a bit of 21st) Century American letters and culture. To be fair, I discovered and truly fell in love with Vonnegut when I had zits, was unable to talk to girls, and my masturbation output was at an all-time high, but he was somewhat more than this.

Since his past there have been many comparisons of Vonnegut to Mark Twain in the media. I argue that this comparison goes further than the fact that both were moustachioed smart asses from the middle of the country. Both men meant more to their specific zeitgeists than just their novels. Both Twain and Vonnegut are remembered most notably for their one canonical novel as opposed to their entire oeuvre. While both Huckleberry Finn and Slaughterhouse-Five are undeniably important American novels that exemplify the contexts in which they were written, both men are sold short by the remembrance of just one novel. Both were stellar essayists, enlightening and hilarious speakers, and cynics par excellence. Both men serve as prime examples of the American Smartass Satirist (or ASS for short), which ought to be a more vaunted position than it currently is. In a culture as surreal and self-serious as ours, we need the court jesters to point at our culture and laugh at its ugliness.

Vonnegut, in many ways, was more than the sum of his novels. He was more than charming in his wit. There are plenty of arguments for the disdain the academy often shows his work, but the real one is simply that he sold books that were colloquial and witty without obtuseness. Obtuseness and obscurity are what gives graduate students intellectual erections, and because many of these folks had first read Vonnegut in high school, they have sold him short once coming to academic power. It is my assertion that they, too, discovered Vonnegut while zit-faced and unable to get laid in high school. Upon discovering like-minded, self-important, bookish types such as themselves in college and graduate schools, they have since gotten laid. They did so, however, while discussing Proust or Pynchon or Gaddis and therefore think that Vonnegut is bereft of literary merit because it never impressed the cute, shy PhD student with glasses at the last department cocktail party. That's my Freudian explanation. Take it for what you will.

There are legitimate arguments for Vonnegut's shortcoming as a writer. Perhaps the most compelling is the feminist argument that his female characters have all the strength and agency and full-bodiedness of stale Miller High Life. My argument against this, however, is that all of Vonnegut's characters -- short of Kilgore Trout -- are, at best, two-dimensional. His characterization of women does not bespeak a deep-seeded misogyny, like, for example, John Updike. Updike's women are all mothers, whores, or some combination thereof, whereas Vonnegut's women are just like his men: foils and tools and seldom, if ever, the point of his novels. They are the necessary cogs to keep the machine of a novel afloat, but it is the narration and the situations that are the, for lack of a better term, POINT of his work. (EDITORIAL SIDENOTE: As one with an almost infinite faith in the descriptive powers of the English language, "for lack of a better term" is an incredibly weak rhetorical device. There is always a 'better term," given the scope of the English language, but I am simply too lazy to find it. Forgive me. This essay is being written on-the-fly while I am tired, drinking beer, and far too lazy to edit or vet too heavily. Forgive me short cuts, forgive me my sins.) Vonnegut's books take a broad lens approach to the human experience and the American culture of his time, due in no small part to his Anthropological background from the University of Chicago. His characters are everymen and everywomen who are playing out the parts that could be anyone, or rather are PRECISELY anyone by design. Unlike John Irving--whose characters, at his best, are so lifelike that if one were to place a mirror up to the page would find it quickly steamed with the breath of their vibrancy--Vonnegut was concerned with a macro-level analysis of the society which surrounded and confounded him. So, sure the women were weak, but so were the men. They didn't matter. They weren't supposed to.

No, the driving force of Vonnegut was cultural-criticism, satire, and cynicism. While many third grade teachers and greeting card writers are eager to tell us that it is far better to be a dreamer than a cynic, Vonnegut's cynicism was refreshingly optimistic. Sure, Vonnegut informed college graduates that things were bad and only to become more "unimaginably worse," but inherent in that statement is an optimism. Those who are cynical are cynical only because there is an assumption inherent that things could or should be better. Moreover, Vonnegut's cynicism exemplified his assertion that artists were the "canaries in the coal mine" of culture. His cynicism reflected, merely, the ugliness of World War II, Watergate, Vietnam, Nagasaki, and any number of other sadnesses visited upon humans by other humans during his tenure on this earth. Vonnegut's cynicism presupposes that it is not only possible that humans SHOULD be nicer to each other, but the more electrifying belief that they actually CAN. If that isn't optimism, I don't know what is.

In closing, I can only hope that Vonnegut's understood importance grows. He was, undoubtedly, the first literary figure to truly captivate me. As this is the case, I am aware that I am prone to lionize the man and his work given its influence on me at a time during which I BEGGED for influence. Upon reading of his death, I had to admit some particular disappointment that he died old and weak and frail from brain injuries caused by a fall. As something of a hero, I would have initially hope for a romantic death. Even the natural progression of his "noble suicide" by Pall Mall to crippling lung cancer would have proven a more romantic death to me. But, upon further investigation, I am heartened that heroes of a sort still get to be weak and feeble and human and susceptible to falling down the stairs while advanced in age. His death demonstrates, as does his oeuvre, that we are all weak and feeble human beings and that no one is better or more entitled to a glorious death (or life for that matter) than anyone else. As with any example of just how fragile we are as human beings, there is an obvious sadness to how little we matter, but an equally huge relief: that which we do on earth makes us no less or no more human (and therefore fallible) than anyone else. Cheers to that equality.

Simply because I cannot resist the temptation, allow me to close thusly: Kurt is up in heaven now. So it goes.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Put Yourself in My Shoes.

Say, for a second, you are me.

You live in Hell's Kitchen, on a rather unfashionable and grubby block of what is rapidly becoming a very fashionable and ungrubby neighborhood. You live in a dilapidated but serviceable tenement in the West 40s that is, mercifully, not full of the yuppies that seem to be conquering the neighborhood. That being said, you wish there was something that could be done about the mold on in your shower and that your bedroom were bigger.

You have a neighbor across the hall that is very friendly, but a bit manic. She is very chatty with you in the hallway and you've helped her with her groceries. You've even scooped up a dead mouse with snapped neck that was crippled in a trap in her kitchen because she is paralyzed with fear over mice. Mice are unavoidable in your building. Still, when you chat with this neighbor, you're never sure that you completely are communicating. You understand the words, but rarely the context in which they are said. It always seems to be completely non-sequitir small talk. You'll mention the weather, she'll complain about Mondays on a Wednesday. Also, her eyes are often bloodshot.

Imagine now, if you will, that she knocks on your door at 11:00PM on a Monday. You answer and she is particularly manic and in desperate need of aluminum foil. So much so that she even says, "I just need a little bit to, um, wrap something. I don't even care if its used!"

Would you conclude that she was a crackhead and needed tinfoil for a fix?

Yeah. Me too.

Monday, April 9, 2007

The Seeming (and Seamy) Cloak of Anonymity.

In THE GREAT GATSBY, Fitzgerald notes, "I like large parties. They're so intimate. At small parties there isn't any privacy."

New York City is a large party. Or it would be if you could afford for it to always be a party, and alas I cannot. That being said, the point here is still apropos. There is a definite privacy that comes with being around thousands of people at any given second. The streets of New York City provide a cloak of anonymity that provides one with a sense of privacy, and enables one to discuss any number of private and intimate matters while walking down the street. I'm no better as I've had frank discussions about sex, money, and all that which is deemed inappropriate dinner-party banter by the WASP-ish voice in my head while wandering through the streets of this town.

For the most part, no one cares what you say as long as it's not directed at you and you're not blocking the sidewalk. I, however, fancy myself somewhat writerly, and therefore pride myself on observation. This is, of course, horse shit as I A) have not published anything since high school nor actively sought publication and B) am really just an unrelenting voyeur. So I eavesdrop to a nauseating degree. Ordinarily nothing juicy is said, but today while walking down the 16th St. toward Union Square I heard, with all due awe, incredulity, and respect, a woman exclaim to another, "NINE AND A HALF INCHES?!"

Monday, April 2, 2007


I like how radiators look like spines from above.