Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Authors I Have Met

Let me just say, I'm limiting the Authors I have Met List to those who have achieved a certain popular or critical success. I'm excluding friends and authors who - though successful, published, etc. - haven't quite pierced that Nth, magical level of public imagination. This is a subjective line, obviously, and apologies in advance to all the writers I'm about to exclude. (Also, I'm using the word "met" liberally. Some of these "meetings" are no more than brief encounters, chance seatings at a table, etc. but, you know, so what?)

Okay, are you ready? (This is bound to be totally uncomfortable, maybe even regrettable...). Here goes. In alphabetical order:

Chinua Achebe: The one time I attended church at Bard I saw Chinua Achebe and his entire family in the congregation. They were fantastic: friendly, smiling, comfortable to be around. I liked him and his family instantly. Several months later, I was walking across campus early one morning. No one was out. I could see, in the distance, further down the trail, a man on a wheelchair. As we slowly approached one another, and as we got close enough so I could make out his face, I could see that the man in the wheelchair was none other than famed Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe. "Good morning," he said, smiling brightly at me. "Good morning," I replied. Let me just say this man has a remarkable smile, a truly benevolent smile - without a doubt the greatest and most endearing smile of any author I've ever met. Perhaps because of my positive (though brief) interactions with Achebe and his family, I decided in the summer of 2003 to read through Achebe's entire body of work. I made it through Things Fall Apart, A Man of the People, Home and Exile (essays) and Hope and Impedements (essays) before I met a woman and spent the rest of the summer not reading. Let me just say: for being an uber-canonized novel that practically every child on the planet is required to read, Things Fall Apart is the real deal. It's fantastic. And I still think about some of the essays in Hope and Impedements.

Andre Aciman: I'm not going to be able to do the Andre Aciman story justice here but Andre was my Proust professor at Bard and it was a wonderful experience. I still haven't read his memoir Out of Egypt but I have a signed copy that he addressed to my grandmother that said (and I'm paraphrasing): "To Velva, Whose grandson, Shawn, will soon be a successful author." There's a scene in In Search of Lost Time where a published, known author of the day visits Marcel at his parent's home and signs a copy of one of his books to Proust's grandmother saying her grandson is going to be a great literary talent, etc., in an attempt to assuage her anxiety that Marcel was wasting his life away. I thought it was a sweet gesture by Andre and it meant a lot to my grandmother.

John Ashbery: I'd never met a Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award winner before. But what are awards, anyway? More importantly, I'd never met an author while I was - at that precise moment - reading through their entire body of work. The summer before taking Ashbery's poetry workshop I read all of his books. Wakefulness had just come out and I was savoring every poem, reading each one three or four times. I loved them all. I was entranced. So, before John walked into our classroom that first morning, I was genuinely nervous. For what, I'm not so sure. When he appeared, ambling his way through the door - lumpy, crooked, feeble - I was struck by how human he seemed. I remember his big nose. I was struck with the physicality of the man which makes sense now, in hindsight...if you only know an author from their words, they becomes an ancillary character in the mind of the reader - a fantasy component of the work itself. When I finally got over the fact that John Ashbery was, actually, a real person I was able to enjoy his very sweet, humble, friendly countenance.

Jean Baudrillard: I didn't actually meet-meet Jean Baudrillard but I was seated next to him at a group dinner. He was a little man. This was only a few years before his death. It was in Switzerland at the European Graduate School (deserving of a post all its own). At the time, I was a big fan of his work. I'd been reading through many of his books: America, Simulacrum and Simulation, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, among others. He was the first and only post-structuralist French theorist I ever shared a conversation with and I have to say - I don't know if it's coincidence or what - but after I had dinner with him I never took French post-structuralist theory seriously again. Ever. Haven't read one word. The moral: Be careful which authors you meet. The meeting will alter you and it's impossible to know how.

Thomas Beller: A tall man, like myself. You know, having attended many literary parties and get-togethers I've discovered that A) Writers, editors and literary people, in general, are shorter than your average cross section of society and B) are likely to resent taller, larger people because of it. This was originally very suprising to me. In my naivete, many years ago, I believed that people dedicated to the Literary Cause, etc., would naturally be, oh, I don't know, intelligent, sophisticated, enlightened...Anyway, meeting Thomas Beller, author, editor of Open City, was a breath of fresh air. It was the first time in my life a writer/editor apporached me at a party BECAUSE of my height, happy to meet me, curious to know I was, what I was working on. I originally discovered Beller via David Berman's Actual Air, a (dare I say) seminal poetry collection that Open City published several years ago. I later read How To Be a Man Beller's incredibly likable collection of autobiographical essays.

Judith Butler: I can't tell you how much I enjoyed meeting Butler. I was taking a three day course with her at the abovementioned European Graduate School and I was genuinely impressed not just with her intellect but with her willingness and desire to connect with every person in the room. I just thought she had a really useful, multi-purpose intellect. She was funny, smart, down-to-earth one minute and almost entirely impossible to understand the next. I loved it! One night, she delivered a 45-minute lecture on Obituaries and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (there's no way I'll be able to recap it or do it justice here but, trust me, it was very interesting). At the end Butler was viciously and personally attacked by EGS's head, Wolfgang Schirmacher (deserving a post all his own), and Butler courageously defended herself, then grabbed her jacket and fled when she realized Schirmacher had gone off the deep end (I've never seen anything quite like it). All of us immediately left the building to accompany her as she walked down that long, dark Swiss mountain. We all went to a pub afterwards and drank beer after beer laughing about the incident. I've never seen the difference between the European and American philosophical traditions made so blatantly apparent. Much respect to Judith Butler.

David James Duncan: More than any other writer I've ever met or read (with the possible exception of - who else? - Ernest Hemingway) David James Duncan made me want to become a writer. He came to my high school during my junior year, read part of his, then, newly published novel The Brothers K, then sat-in during my English class, basically explaining to us what his day-to-day life was like as a writer and stay-at-home dad. I just thought: that's it. That's the life I want. He seemed like a really laid-back, thoughtful, cool guy. And not a bad writer at all. I read The Brothers K not long after I met him making it, not only the longest book I had ever read at the time(656 p.), but the first work of fiction that left me simultaneously empty AND full when I finished it, sobbing like a little baby.

Steve Erickson: My defining moment with Steve Erickson is when he described his experience as Rolling Stone political correspondent as this: “Jan Wenner wanted me to be Hunter S. Thompson.” And then he shrugged, like, What the fuck are you gonna do? This is not a man who seemed particularly interested in teaching a class-full of graduate students, most of whom would probably not go on to become actual practicing writers. I can’t say that I blame him. Also, I’ve never read anything he’s written – but his books do look good…

Thomas Frank: Author of What's the Matter With Kansas? an intelligent examination of how the republican party had managed to convince middle-American, blue collar, traditionally democratic-leaning voters to vote republican and, essentially against their own best interests. My friend Margaret had an interview scheduled with him for a magazine and - knowing that I'm a daffy political junky - invited me along for the ride. We saw him give a riveting reading at Skylight Books in Los Feliz, a reading that actually provoked thoughtful, earnest dialogue between, not just audience members and author, but between audience members (imagine that!) Afterwards, me, Margaret, Frank and an old friend of his got a drink down the street. This was in 2003 just before Bush's re-election. Frank was livid about the cable news talk-show's dismissal of he and his book and seemed genuinely distraught, not just by the overall political climate of the country, but by the mainstream press's unwillingness to listen to him. Six months later Bush defeated John Kerry (much to the liberal news media's suprise) and suddenly Thomas Frank was on all the cable shows and his book was being talked about as "prescient," etc. His literary fortune really took a positive turn thanks to Bush.

Steve Katz: One of my favorites. I met Steve at the University of Colorado at Boulder as an undergraduate and we immediately took to one another. It was in a meeting in his office when he told me I could/should become a writer. I was 19 and when he told me this it changed everything. I recently ran into Steve in Powell’s in Portland. I walked to the B section, looking to see if any of the new Thomas Bernhard re-issues had come out (they still haven’t) and there was a man standing right there in my spot looking through Bernhard. We stood side-by-side for a moment, wrestling for space, and then I looked over and saw that it was Steve. My mom and I went out to dinner with he and two of his grandchildren a few nights later at a real Chinese restaurant way out in deep north Portland. For those of you who don’t know: this is the guy who wrote The Exagerations of Peter Prince, one of the coolest, funniest “experimental” works of fiction I’ve ever read. Also, his smile rivals Achebe's.

Robert Kelly: You know, I’m surprised by how many authors I’ve made it through without a single negative or critical comment. Did you know Robert Kelly was once as large as a house? Literally. Yeah, I guess everyone knows that. Uhm…did you know he’s written about five hundred books? Yeah, everybody knows that too. Hmm…did you know he’s quite the ladies man…with teenage college girls? Um, yeah…I guess that’s common knowledge. Also, he speaks with a British accent even though he's from New York and hasn’t left the state once in the last 60 years. Hm. Alright, next!

Sam Lipsyte: Thomas Beller introduced me to Sam Lipsyte at a party as Sam
was on his way out. We didn’t really get a chance to talk or anything but he seemed pretty cool. His first book Venus Drive, a collection of stories put out by Open City, is very funny. Loved it. I'll never forget Black Sean.

Harry Mathews: The lone American member of the French Literary movement OULIPO. Several years ago, a couple good friends and I visited Harry and his wife at their beautiful home in Key West. We brought wine and cheese. As I was passing the cheese to Harry’s wife I dropped the cheese on the floor. I don’t know why this is important. Later that afternoon, my friend Arlo, who is pals with Harry, mentioned something about Willy Nelson and Harry Mathews (then about 75) said: “Who?” And Arlo said: “You know, the country western pop star, Willy Nelson – sang On The Road Again….” And Harry said: “Never heard of him.” To this day I can’t decide whether to be impressed or disturbed. Even if you are a wealthy, Harvard-alumn, globe-trotting literary experimentalist how do you not know who Willy Nelson is? Am I missing something here?

Mark Strand: I was kind of excited to meet Mark Strand. He came to read at Calarts and at the gathering afterwards his girlfriend at the time (the phenomenal Maureen X) introduced us. He’s almost as tall as me and handsome in a Clint Eastwood-meets-J.M. Coetzee sort of way. And also, Dark Harbor continues to be pretty great.

Ron Sukenick: I ended up working as Ron’s assistant in he and his wife’s Battery Park apartment many years after I was his student at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He once tried to sleep with my girlfriend when - under the pretense that he wanted to meet her to offer a reviewing job with his journal The American Book Review. Ron eventually died from an extremely cruel and rare degenerative muscle disease called IBM and he told my girlfriend during their “meeting” that he would soon lose the ability to have sex and that this was his last opportunity to make love with a young, beautiful woman, etc. She told me she respectfully declined but, you know, who knows? When I found out I was very angry and I never respected him again as much as I originally did. I really looked up to him. But, I continued to work for him anyway, part-time, for the next several years. In the end, none of it mattered. I was deeply moved by his courage and daily optimism in the face of death and that horrible, debilitating disease. On a side note, Ron’s office overlooked the World Trade Center. Two weeks after 9/11 I was granted entry into the area - which had been sealed off to everyone except military personnel and homeowners - and I got to see, through Ron’s window, that smoldering, nightmarish, black pit. You know, it’s funny. I never once thought to take a picture. But I didn’t need to. I’ll never forget that.

Kurt Vonnegut: I’m usually anti-book signings (and anti-autograph collecting, in general) but when I saw in the paper that Kurt Vonnegut was coming to the Tattered Cover in Denver I had to go. I couldn’t not go. I mean, Kurt Vonnegut. I bought a copy of Cat’s Cradle, waited in line and, when I got to the front, said: “Good morning, Mr. Vonnegut.” I figured it’d be the only time in my life when I could actually say that. And I was right. He looked at me and then through me. It didn’t really seem like he wanted to be there. That or he’d had enough of 19-year old boys fawning over him. I can imagine that probably gets old. Like, two decades ago.

So, that’s it! A pretty improbable collection of authors, don’t you think? I mean, there’s no way this exact collection of writers has ever been brought together in one place before, right? Well, this was the easy part. Next up: A book connecting the work of all nineteen authors. I mean, I’m not going to write it. But you can.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Why Barack Obama is a Boon for the Foreign Policy Legacy of George W. Bush

Let me double preface this thing before I get started:

I am not and never have been one of those liberals who thinks the Republican Party is Evil and Bad and always has been and always will be, etc. Not at all. I'm just as likely to bash the democrats for playing dumb party-politics (as Gertrude Stein never said: a politician's a politician's a politician...). That being said, I was not a fan of George W. Bush. His "leadership" as president seemed to be dispiriting to most people, most of the time. Not a good approach for a president of a liberal democracy, regardless of party.

It might be hard to believe but it's still possible for George W. Bush's presidential legacy to be considered, at least, a partial success and the rise of Barack Obama, I think, works neatly in his favor. Let me explain.

As of this writing (July '09) it's still possible that an American-backed democratically-elected Iraqi government will stabilize at some point in the next several years, and the U.S. will stumble into a massive economic windfall from their oil resources, more than paying for our two recent wars (actually, if you think about the Afghan and Iraqi invasions as entrepreneurial ventures, investments, I think they start to make a lot more sense).

So imagine if you will a U.S. friendly Afghanistan neighboring a U.S. friendly Iraq (a fairly big if, I know, but hang in there...). Add to that the recent unexpected victory of the "March 14 Coalition," the American-backed Lebanese Parliament, versus their Hezbollah/Tehran-backed opponents, in addition to Barack Obama's (for the most part) largely influential Cairo University speech AND the widespread moderate upheaval in the recent Iranian elections...it's not inconcievable that within the next five to ten years the middle-east will look significantly different than it did, say, in the fall of 2001. Even if American influence in the region is minimal and only lasts a generation or less it's still, I guess, better than nothing - not to mention the oil and geo-political advantage it gives us for that period of time (an advantage that would otherwise go to Iran or Russia or China or all three...).

George W. Bush's legacy has a much better chance of someday having (however briefly) a positive historical revival with Obama now in the White House than with McCain/Palin. Obama wields power in the most sophisticated (and powerful) of ways. He smiles a lot. He's wildly intelligent. Everyone wants to be his friend. So, on the one hand, we have this liberal, almost universally admired man in office who seems to represent all the most positive ideals the United States is said to offer while we continue to: occupy two foreign countries (including a Baghdad Embassy larger than the Vatican), strafe and bomb a third country (Pakistan) with CIA-operated drones, intimately influence the politics of the entire region. From the point of view of the United States, isn't that the best of both worlds? We get soft and hard power at the same time.

The President of the United States is not the ruler or owner of the country the way Kings used to be rulers of their countires. The President of the United States is (more or less) a temporary representative of the needs and wants of the United States at any given time. The president is a face, a personality which expresses those needs, both to its own subjects and to the rest of the world. But the State...the State remains the same. American power is still American power regardless of which party happens to be holding office. Doesn't it, on some level, benefit the State - in the big picture, over a long period of time - to be mixing up its representatives, to be alternating its personalities? When Obama won the election, didn't you think, on some level: We're the good guys again? Didn't it make it a tiny bit more palpable in your mind that we continue to occupy two countries, exert our influence throughout the Mid-East, etc? Admit it, I know you did. And I guarantee you untold millions of people around the world thought the same thing.

From a long-term historical perspective (or in other words, in the overall life-span of the country called America) does it really matter if one president was deeply unpopular and the one that came after him was beloved? I'm not so sure it matters. But I think it definitely matters what actions the nation takes at home and abroad, on offense and defense. I'm willing to take George W. Bush and his administration at their word when they said they didn't care if their actions were popular or not. I'm willing to believe Bush when he said History would be his judge. I think, compared to the popular political imagination, this seems like a cynical approach to government but will it prove harmful in a deep and lasting way? It very well might not.

In which case we can look forward to a Time or New Yorker article (if either magazine still exists in print form) in approximately 8-12 years titled: Is it Time to Rethink George W. Bush's Legacy?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Goodbye, Michael Jackson...Hello, Miko Brando!!!

Though we've recently lost pop-sensation Michael Jackson, we have gained a new celebrity: Miko Brando. Every time I turned on the TV last week Miko Brando was on Larry King Live wearing a different colored Hawaiian shirt. I'm sort of as stunned by Miko Brando's existence as I was by Michael Jackson's death. Actually, that's not true. When my friend M called to tell me Michael Jackson died I thought, "Oh, yeah, well, that kind of makes sense." Not that I wanted Michael to die or was pleased to hear of his death but it just kind of made sense from an objective/biographical stand-point (I mean, this is a guy whose public persona had gotten so out-of-control and unpredictable that he, really, could have done anything and it would have finally seemed somewhat normal in the overall narrative of "Michael Jackson").

But, nothing could have prepared me for the emergence of Miko Brando. My first thought was: "What? This guy looks like a Pacific Islander who just returned to port from a twenty year bender at sea (and who was maybe raised by a coconut)." But, that being said, he seems like a really sweet guy. Listening to him talk about his intimate, decades-long relationship with Michael, I started thinking about the world of celebrity children who are members of the world's uber-elite thanks to their parent's immense wealth, connections etc. I mean, what has Miko Brando's life been like? I could be totally wrong but I imagined him losing his virginity at age 9 (to neighbor/family-friend Liza Minelli), drug-addiction at age 10, a garage-full of multi-colored Lamborghinis at age 11, man-slaughter charges (acquitted) involving aforementioned Lamborghinis, thanksgiving dinners with Liberace, hot air balloon day-trips with Eddie Muprhy, etc. He's so rich he can go on live feeds of CNN unshaven/wearing super-expensive beach-comber/drop-out/drug addict clothing and then, not only did no one question his character, etc., but he was the main character witness guy!!! This obviously speaks to Michael Jackson's day-to-day life and just how kooky it got. Actually, I can't think of one person who took to the airwaves to speak a word about the passing of Michael Jackson who wasn't just entirely unreal and/or entirely improbable. I mean, when Charlie Rose called Quincy Jones at his home in Brussels (!?!) he sounded as if he were on his 80,000th martini/xanax/marijuana cocktail, thank you very much.

Digression: If we start counting several weeks prior to Michael Jackson there have been a string of celebrity deaths unseen in my 33 years, completely obliterating the long-held urban myth that celebrities die in 3's. Let's make a list: David Carradine, Ed Macmahon, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Pina Bausch, pitchman Billy Mayes (just two days after his appearance on Conan), Steve McNair, boxer Arturo Gatti (not a household name, I know), and just yesterday
Walter Cronkite. I have a theory: This is the new norm. We've reached a particular population density which includes a rapidly growing celebrity-to-non-celebrity ratio in which it will now become normal for a "famous" person to die every day. And soon, several celebrities will be dying each hour and then, not long after that, there will be dozens of celebrity deaths per minute making it perfectly reasonable to start up a 24-hour Celebrity Obituary Cable channel complete with up-to-the-minute scrolling celebrity deaths at the bottom of the screen, a channel (and accompanying website) dedicated entirely to looking back on all those wondrous highlights that made that person's life special (actually, this seems like a perfectly reasonable cable channel). UPDATE: As if to prove my point, these celebrities have passed away since I first wrote this post: Robert McNamara, Frank McCourt, Merce Cunningham, Budd Schulberg, John Hughes, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

In any case, I have a feeling we'll be seeing a lot more of Miko Brando in the near future. At the very least, he should release a line of Miko Brando Hawaiian shirts (I'm good for like a half-a-dozen). But perhaps the most significant shift that occured because of Michael Jackson's death and the rise of Miko Brando is that not one person has mentioned father Marlon - and may never again. Someday, kids will be saying: "Have you seen Apocolypse Now? I heard Miko Brando's dad was in that."