Thursday, December 27, 2012

Building Stories by Chris Ware

I could never imagine reading a "book" like this, but I was drawn in by The New York Times top 10 list for 2012.  This unconventional work is comprised of 14 printed works.  The stories pivot around an unnamed female protagonist with a missing leg.  Let's call her "LG" (Lonely Girl).  Here's a great source of angst for the reader: the parts of the work can be read in any order.  Since there is no end piece, the reader is tempted not to finish all the readings.  There are no page numbers, so I defer comments to each work.
Architecture figures prominently in the story, the woman lives on the 3rd floor of a Chicago brownstone apartment building.  The title, Building Stories, is a double entendre, and by little coincidence is abbreviated "BS."  Note prominence of those letters on box cover pictograph.  Chris Ware grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, home of Frank Lloyd Wright, three of his houses figure into the works.  It is not a surprise that the author has such a detailed architectural point of view.  In fact, the buildings talk in an anthropomorphic fashion.
Aside from the box itself, which has a small quantity of comic panels printed on it, Building Stories contains the following 14 pieces (I will comment on story highlights found in each):
  1.  A 52-page wordless landscape booklet
    • LG as mother tending to her daughter, Lucy.
  2.  A double-sided accordion foldout of the protagonist in the snow
    • LG ruminates on her dead end life while walking in the snow.
  3.  A double-sided accordion foldout of the protagonist with her daughter
    • LG's daughter Lucy ruminates on being between happy and sad and expresses concerns she may not be able to control her children.
  4.  "Branford: The Best Bee in the World," a 24-page comic book
  5.  "September 23rd, 2000," a 32-page hardcover Little Golden Book (including the New York Times Magazine serial)
    • This book resembles a Little Golden Book.  In fact the print is very small and the reader is forced to bring the book very close to the face, by design.  We meet her landlord on the 1st floor, a quarreling couple on the 2nd floor (the girlfriend has wide "child-bearing hips...and all without bearing any child"), and a visit from a plumber who once lived in her apartment.  She considers the "architectural precedent: why is it always the attic where we banish our past?"
  6.  A 16-page comic book featuring the couple from the second floor
    • Here we are introduced to the 2nd floor couple, their past romance, and current state of the union (neglect, boredom).  The self-absorbed boyfriend, Lance, is a rock musician.  Future (150 years) aliens pick up memory fragment of the couple.
  7.  A 16-page comic book featuring the old woman from the first floor
    • Landlord recalls her lonely childhood and parents' demise.
  8.  "Disconnect," a 20-page comic book
    • LG is a married parent in this book, we meet LG's mother, who reveals that LG's father had an affair.  This info volunteered when it became noticeable that LG's architect husband, Phil, rarely at home.  As mother, LG's body has changed and there is a memorable scene of Phil laying naked on bed with his face deeply buried in notebook, while LG stands naked beside him, completely ignored.  LG finds her ex-boyfriend on Internet and they meet in Chicago.  LG dreams she finds book in bookstore about her life, arranged "in a carton."
  9.  A 52-page cloth-bound hardcover book with no markings (a near-replica of Acme Novelty Library #18)
    • This book contains the "heart" of the story of LG, including her heartbreaking stint as a nanny for family whose wife was in affair and her evolving body image and humiliating relation with her first boyfriend and subsequent abortion.  There are sections in this work that confirm her role as the actual narrator, namely how many of the comic strips are clipped or truncated.  This work is loaded with sexual imagery akin to Georgia O'Keeffe flower visuals, after all, LG's day job is a florist.  While nanny she confronts an awkward rough house session with the son in which he becomes aroused (she becomes aware that what is poking her "is not an action figure").  Her legless body is always a source of contemplation: "My real leg is buried in a decomposing bio hazard bag somewhere."  We also learn that she had a weak heart as a child.  Nevertheless, her boyfriend opines "I love you just the way you are."  This sentiment notwithstanding, he humiliates LG in bed with some porno films by insisting they masturbate, implying LG is less interesting than the video subject matter.  There is a reference to Tarkovsky, Soviet film director, whose style no doubt informed the author of BS.  The work ends with a rather pathetic scene where the nurse must hold her thigh during the abortion, since she has no legs for the stirrup.
  10.  "The Daily Bee," a fold-out newspaper
    • In which we are introduced to Branford and his girlfriend Betty.  Branford runs into some "hard air" in form of a windowpane and is caught inside a house.
  11.  A single poster, folded in half
    • LG recalls her high school boyfriend and prom date.  Much self reflection here, sees herself as product of parents.  Ware pushing boundaries of sexual realism with tender scene of LG and husband masturbating her in front of a mirror.
  12.  A four-panel accordion-folded board
  13.  A 20-page broadsheet
  14. Unity Temple, Oak Park
    Frank Lloyd Wright House & Studio (1889), Oak Park
    Heurtley House (1902), Forest Ave., Oak Park
    •  Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple, House & Studio, and Heurtley House figure prominently in this work, which picks up LG and Phil as they move to suburban Oak Park.  LG, Doomsday survivalist, frets about collapse of civilization.  Her friend Stephanie commits suicide.  On the way to the memorial service, her cat falls terminally ill.  Ware continues focus on quotidian aspects of life with a funny quad showing shopping, daughter care, dinner prep, and spousal fellatio (as a quotidian duty).
  15. A 4-page broadsheet (including "Actual Size" from Kramers Ergot #7)
    • LG learns her father is dying.  At a party years ago, LG reveals why her leg was amputated.  "Actual Size" refers to actual size baby in centerfold, originally appearing in book titled Kramers Ergot #7.  I have read reviewer comments saying large unwieldy size of broadsheet is "impolite."

Sunday, December 16, 2012

This is Water by David Foster Wallace

In 2005, David Foster Wallace addressed the graduating class of Kenyon College (Gambier, OH) with a brilliant speech.  He begins with a parable that appeared in his novel Infinite Jest (p. 445):
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys.  How's the water?"  And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"
DFW explains that the point of the fish story is that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.  In the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance.  DFW feels the value of education is awareness of what is real and essential, hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
This is water.
This is water.
The book leaves one sentence out from the commencement speech on p. 58: "They shoot the terrible master."  The suicide references, of course, foreshadow DFW's own suicide in 2008.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Ravelstein by Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow wrote his last novel at age 85, soon after his own bout with mortality, having ingested a toxic fish in St. Martin while on vacation, and finding himself in the ICU for 25 days in a hospital in Boston. Martin Amis, in his memoirs (Experience) says "It my view, a masterpiece with no analogues. The world has never heard this prose before: prose of such tremulous and crystallized beauty." The novel is a roman a clef about Allan Bloom, whom Bellow befriended as a fellow professor at the Univ. of Chicago. Bello encouarged Bloom to write a book based on his philosophy course notes, which would become a best seller, The Closing of the American Mind. Harriet Wasserman, Bellow's agent took on Bloom's book project, which made him wealthy. In a sense, Bellow's booklong prank got away from him, it made Bloom famous, so Bellow had to kill him, it's the Frankenstein myth (Max, The New York Times).

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Actual by Saul Bellow

The Actual (1997) is yet another (3rd in a row) 100-something page novella. Harry Trellman (p. 8), 60 years old, is the narrator and protagonist. His Asiatic face has reinforced his sense of having "a masked character" and made him a nihilist. He becomes a member of Sigmund Adletsky's "brain trust," (p.15) a character modelled after Sheldon Adelson, a casino/hotel magnate, at one time 3rd richest man in the world. Long time love of his life, Amy Wustrin appears on the scene as interior decorator for Adletsky. She is "the Actual" (p. 100). Harry's friend Jay becomes 2nd husband to Amy, but nevertheless Jay invites Harry to a postprandial shower a trois with Amy (p. 24), and left them alone under the hot water. No consummation however. Jay is a practical joker and arranges to be buried in a plot next to Amy's mother. He dies and later, when Amy's father
dies, she exhumes his body. Adletsky loans his stretch limo to Harry and he gets some alone time with Amy, and proposes, better late than never. Begley opines "The Actual is not a young man's piece of is the work of a great master still locked in unequal combat with Eros and Time."
The term "moronic inferno" (p. 43) is once again used by Bellow, which would be adopted by Martin Amis in a collection of short stories. There is an obscure reference (pp. 56 and 104) to a Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev and his book Slavery and Freedom (1939) as well as T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral (p. 64).

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Bellarosa Connection by Saul Bellow

This is Bellow's 2nd paperback-only novella. The Bellarosa Connection (1989) derives it's name from Harry Fonstein, a Galician Jew living in Italy under Mussolini, who is rescued from the Nazis "Hollywood-style" (p. 28) charitably by the real life impresario and lyricist Billy Rose (1899-1966), but misheard his name. The story is told by a nameless narrator, who is a child of Russian Jews from NJ (p. 2) and founder of an institute which teaches memory skills, the Mnemosyne (after mnemonic)Institute in Philadelphia. Fonstein is related to the Narrator as the nephew of his Aunt Mildred. The central plot is of Harry and his wife's (Sorella) effort to bring closure to their ordeal by meeting their disinterested benefactor. Ultimately, Sorella (whom the narrator likens to Rembrandt's Saskia (painting) stalks Billy Rose in Jerusalem at the King David Hotel and attempts to "blackmail" (p. 52) him with secret information, unsuccessfully.

Until late in the novella, the narrator fails to understand the Fonstein's desire for closure. "I break my head trying to understand why it's so important for Fonstein. He's been turned down ? So he's been turned down" (p. 22). The narrator wants to wash his hands of his own heritage "I didn't want to think of the history and psychology of these abominations, death chambers and furnaces. Stars are nuclear furnaces too. Such things are utterly beyond me, a pointless exercise" (p. 29). His "advice to Fonstein - given mentally - was: Forget it. Go American" (p. 29). The narrator has an odd comment to the portly Sorella, suggesting she is the living incorporation of European Jews: "Maybe Sorella was trying to incorporate in fatty tissue some portion of what he had lost - members of his family" (p. 48).

When Sorella meets Billy in 1959 (p. 58), she has a packet of evidence from Billy's deceased assistant Deborah Hamet (called Horsecollar (p. 16) because of Yiddish word khomet), accusing Billy Rose of bribing "Robert Moses' people to put across my patriotic Aquacade at the Fair" (p. 55) among other misdeeds (see photo 1939 World's Fair Aquacade).

For those wondering what the message of the book really is, perhaps it can be gleaned by assimilation concerns. Sorella says "if you want my basic view, here it is : The Jews could survive everything that Europe threw at them. I mean the lucky remnant. But now comes the next test - America. Can they hold their ground, or will the U.S.A. be too much for them?" (p. 65).

The 2nd half of the book (p. 66) is all about the narrator and his own memory loss. Years later in contemplation of the Fonsteins he no longer needs to see them because he remembers them so well : "My much appreciated in-absentia friends, so handsomely installed in my consciousness" (p. 72). In a dream sequence (p. 89), the narrator finally understands the Fonstein's quest for closure. The final words of the book betray the shallow thinking of the narrator: "I chose instead to record everything I could remember of the Bellarosa Connection, and set it all down with a Mnemosyne flourish" (p. 102). This was merely a check on the vitality of his own mental powers, rather than an exercise in emotional memory.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Theft by Saul Bellow

This novella, divided into 6 unnumbered chapters, was intended for a magazine, but none would publish it, so Bellow published it in 1989 as a paperback only. The plot is simple. Clara Velde is a successful fashion writer in New York City living on Park Ave. amidst a city in an era of moral and financial bankruptcy - she refers to NYC as "Gogmagogsville" (p. 12), from Satan's warring kingdoms Gog and Magog. Oddly, the protagonist is not male and not Jewish ! The book's title refers to the disappearance of Clara's prized emerald ring. Clara associates the ring with her love for the Washington, D.C. politico Ithiel Teddy Regler and with her own professional and personal power. With 7 marriages between them, they are "permanent" (p.) lovers and the ring was a gift, bought at Madison Hamilton (47th St.) (p. 40), from Ithiel (the name can be translated as "God with me"). The ring's apparent theft leads Clara into a series of psychological crises and forces her to confront a long-buried complex of interpersonal issues. Unlike most Bellow protagonists, she doesn't "take much stock in the collapsing-culture bit" (p. 89).

Clara is a romantic who believes that "you couldn't separate love from being" (p. 31). Regarding Ithiel "I love you with my soul" (p. 33). The emerald ring "represented the permanent form of the passion she had for this man" (p. 43). She equates the emerald as symbolic of the inner mines of her body and states "I am an infant mine" (p. 43) referring to the gems her 3 daughters would be.

Gina Wegman (p. 45) is an Austrian au pair with a Haitian boyfriend, Frederic Vigneron (p. 82), who steals the ring while exploring Clara's apt. The theft is symbolic of theft of our humanity by civilization (East & West) that we have created. Ultimately, Gina explains the significance of the heirloom to her Haitian and returns it by convincing the youngest daughter Lucy ("There's something major in Lucy") (p. 47) to secretly return it to her mother's night table (p. 83).

In the end, Clara has an epiphany-like moment, reminiscent of Seize the Day, where she feels at one with the surrounding humanity (she calls herself "homeless" (p. 109)). She is most overwhelmed by the goodness of her 10-year old daughter.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Him With His Foot in His Mouth by Saul Bellow

Large sprawling novels are better suited to revealing the masterly writing of Saul Bellow than short stories. That being said, this collection that spans a decade before publication (1984) is well worth reading. There are many little gems to be found.

Him With His Foot in His Mouth (1982). This story is a draft letter (p. 4) of apology to a Miss Rose, a librarian at a New England college, for an unwarranted rude remark made to her many years ago by one Herschel Shawmut (p. 31), narrator. Miss Rose said that he looked like an archaeologist in his cap, and he replied that she looked "like something I just dug up" (p. 8). The letter introduces subjects far beyond the scope of the apology. He is living in British Columbia to avoid being sued for a financial swindle perpetrated by his brother Philip. An italicized "Personal Note" infers that this draft letter is more of an apologia to unnamed readers rather than an apology to Miss Rose. The blurred and rambling letter implies that the narrator merely wants to listen to himself: "The writing of this letter has been the occasion of important discoveries about myself" (p. 57).

What Kind of Day Did You Have (1984) is the story of Katrina Goliger, divorced, who is summoned to Buffalo from Evanston (Illinois) by her septuagenarian lover, Victor Wulpy, to share a plane ride back to Chicago. She sets aside her "self-respect" (p. 64) and drops all to make the trip. Victor is a "world-class intellectual" (p. 63) and expert in art, modelled after Bellow's friend Harold Rosenberg. Victor is still a sexual player and has "a silken scrotum that he might now and touching, leading out the longest hairs" (p. 73). Such a Bellow-ism !And more, Victor called her hands "her touch-cock fingers" (p. 104). Victor senses a Baudelairean phase of their relationship and quotes the Chanson d'Apres-midi from Fleurs du mal: "....tu connais la caresse Qui fait revivre les morts..."

Much of the story is tied up with a chance meeting with Larry Wrangel in Buffalo (then again in Detroit when snow forces an unscheduled landing), who challenges Victor (p. 115) on his dealings 30 years earlier with Pavel Tchelitchew, a neo-Romanticist painter (his famous "Hide and Seek" painting in photo). Katrina is "daunted" by Victor's "intellect, she casts herself in the role of his pupil, paying erotic tuition happily for the privilege of sharing his conversation" (p. 197). She wears ostrich-skin boots (p.88), a metaphor for her retreat from conventional life. She has "been trying to write a children's story about an elephant" (p. 86), that takes the elevator to the top floor of a department store, where toys are sold, but refuses to get back on to leave (p. 91), symbolic of her own "elevated" position with no egress. Upon returning home she exclaims to her daughters Soolie and Pearl "What kind of day did you have ?" (p. 161) a question that would be unanswerable were it addressed to her.

Best lines - "'He runs a Procrustean flophouse for bum ideas'" (p. 77) [Procrustes amputated limbs of travelers to conform to the length of bed in his inn]. "To read Beidell's mind you'd need a proctoscope" (p. 99). "Even Vespasian when he collected his toilet tax had to justify himself: Pecunia non olet. But we've come to a point where it's only money that doesn't stink" (p. 109.

Zetland: By a Character Witness (1974) is really about Bellow's childhood friend Isaac Rosenfeld, who died at age 38, which explains a rather abrupt ending. It is a story about how father (Max) and son (Zet) do not see eye to eye about what defines a successful career and how greener pastures do not always lie ahead. Best word - Schwärmerei, meaning excessive sentimentality.

A Silver Dish (1978) is the best short story in the book, based on the subtle games Bellow plays with the narration as well as the symbolism. It is about a 60 yr old (pp. 191, 203) son Woody Selbst and his octogenarian (p. 191) father Morris and the son's reluctant realization of how different they view the world. In the end he attends his father's funeral at age 83 (p. 221). Throughout the story, the narrator attempts to maintain a specious anonymity, but in his enthusiasm reveals that he is indeed Woody (the word "selbst" is self in German). The book opens with narration that betrays emotional involvement and then disjointedly becomes more distant ("Morris, his old man")(p. 192). At one point, the narrator jumps in and speaks in his own voice ("But Pop!")(p. 201). His omniscience becomes a charade.

The story subtly and suddenly recounts a story (p. 201) that took place 40 (pp. 193, 216) years ago. Woody consents to let his father ask Mrs. Skoglund for money (p. 202), she had been paying for his seminary education. To Woody, "Pop was elemental", He wanted what he wanted when he wanted it" (p. 206). "In regard to Pop, you thought of neither sincerity nor insincerity" (p. 206). Woody is the typical Bellovian protagonist who suffers internal dividedness. The story reaches its crescendo when Pop steals a silver dish from Skoglund. He stuffs it in his pants, inside his underpants. For Woody, "it was impossible to thrust his hand under Pop's belt to recover the dish" (213). Woody, at 2o, fails the Oedipal coming-of-age test, contemplating his father's paternal genitalia buried within the vaginal dish. Nevertheless, Woody tussles him to the ground, afraid "the old man was about to bite him" (p. 213), triggering the narrator's memory of a crocodile in the Nile eating a buffalo calf (p. 192) near the Murchison Falls in Uganda. Ultimately, Ms. Skoglund discovers missing heirloom and Woody is suspended from divinity school (p. 216). In effect "Pop had carried him back to his side of the line" (p. 217) forcing the dismissal.

Woody spent a lifetime emulating his father's bad ways, as Kiernan (Saul Bellow) observes: Pop was abandoned by his parents at age 12, Woody bankrolled his own desertion by 14. Pop cheated and stole as a young man, Woody stole bacon. Pop showed the moral indifference of a Mongolian bandit (p. 213), Woody treasures memory of smuggling hashish, pimping for prostitutes. Pop abandoned his wife and children for another man's wife, Woody keeps 3 residences for himself, wife, and mistress. But fundamentally, they were different. The last sentence betrays Woody's feelings towards his father "That was how he was" (p. 222), not the way Woody was.

Cousins (1984) is a short story that draws in the Bellovian themes of dividedness and alienation in a big way. It is very challenging, hard to imagine a full comprehension on a single reading, the reread is filled with epiphanies. One needs to understand the basis of Hegel's Lectures at Jena (1806) and drill down a bit on the Jesup Exploration of the Siberian Eskimos. Ijah Brodsky, the narrator, explains that "I don't practice law, don't play the piano. don't do any of the things I was famous for (with intramural fame)" (p. 265), although he emceed the famous-trials TV show (p. 227) for many years. He has two passions: He keeps "track of all the cousins" (p. 233) and reading the "reports of the Jesup Expedition" (p. 258).

There are a lot of moving parts in this story, but the pending incarceration of his crooked cousin Raphael (Tanky) Metzger is played off against the imminent death of his intellectual cousin Scholem Stavis. Tanky (he was built like a tank on his high school football team (p. 238). Ijah's parents' generation includes his mother Shana, father Red, Shana's brothers Mordechai (Motty) and Shimon. Tanky's sister Eunice contacts Ijah to help bail him out of a harsh prison sentence by writing the Judge.

Bellow lifts famous lines from Hegel's final lecture in Jena. He states that the "whole mass of ideas that have been current until now 'the very bonds of the world,' are dissolving and collapsing like a vision in a dream. A new emergence of Spirit is - or had better be - at hand" (p. 246). And where, with regard to the cousins, does that leave us?...I can't sail forth; I can't even extricate myself from the ties of Jewish cousinhood. It may be that the dissolution of the bonds of the world affects Jews in different ways" (p. 246). Ijah sees himself as an anachronism.

Keeping in mind that Bellow was an anthropology student at Northwestern, Ijad is obsessed with reading Boas' monographs on the 1906 Jesup Expedition to study the Koryak and Chukchee tribes in Siberia, as described by Waldemar Jochelson and Waldemar Bogoras. The narrator mentions these Russian Jews were political radicals (p. 252) that were exiled to Siberia in the 1890s (p. 253). Franz Boas (p. 255) at the American Museum of Natural History requested Moscow to set them free. This grant of freedom is in direct contrast to Tanky's request for release, and conjures images of human brotherhood. The studies revealed that the Chukchees buy protection from demons like mobsters pay tribute to the Mob (p. 253). Shamans (p. 253) offer the protection. Ijah sees himself as seerlike (p. 254), predicting "the revolution of the mullahs" in Iran.

Hegel gets mixed in to the discussion: "And whether we are preparing a new birth of spirit or the agonies of final dissolution...depends on what you think, feel, and will about such manifestations or apparitions, on the kabbalistic skill you develop in te interpretation of these contemporary formations. My intuition is that the Koryak and the Chukchee lead me in the right direction" (pp. 253-254). Ijah doubts that this world is on the brink of rebirth of spirit. Ijah now introduces his cousin Ezekiel (Seckel) who lectured in primitive languages at the state university. He learned dying languages of the Mohicans in Michigan. "He described himself as a Diffusionist. All culture was invented once, and spread from a single source" (p.256). His belief precludes optimism about the future, Seckel identifies with obsolescence. Ijah sees a universalism among peoples, as the Siberian tribes behaved in ways that defied their harsh environment rather than adapting to it. These trends apply to his Jewish cousinhood as well, as he is informed by anthropology as well as metaphysics.

In a beautiful passage, he reflects as a boy "how geography had been taught in the Chicago schools when I was a kid. We were issued a series of booklets: 'Our Little Japanese Cousins, 'Little Moroccan Cousins,' 'Our Little Russian Cousins,' 'Our Little Spanish Cousins.' I read all these gentle descriptions about little Ivan and tiny Conchita, and my eager heart opened to them. Why, we were close, we were one under it all....we were not guineas, dagos, krauts; we were cousins" (p. 292). Despite confrontation with horrifying chaos, the narrator emerges with profound insight on the universal nature of human beings.

The book closes with the pending death of Scholem Stavis, who is a brilliant philosopher, forced to drive a taxi. Ijah meets him at a taxi convention in Paris, and makes arrangements to honor his request to be buried in East Germany. He receives a letter from Eunice (p. 291) regarding Tanky's additional wishes, he tears the letter up and makes a moral choice to ignore this request and focus on Scholem. Ijah's final thoughts - "I had remembered, observed, studied the cousins, and these studies seemed to fix my own essence and to keep me as I had been. I had failed to include myself among them, and suddenly I was billed for this oversight" (p. 294). His studies have been a means of retaining his division and separateness.