Friday, February 29, 2008

Sam Pink

I am sitting at my desk at my work. There are eleven minutes left on the clock before I can leave. I've been reading Sam Pink's blog THIS IS AN IMPERSONAL ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATION. My computer screen is visible to people coming in the office door, and I keep feeling worried that they will see something on the screen that will upset them or make them think something bad about me. Sam Pink's blog is almost exclusively words, and I think it's interesting to think that I'm worried about people reading these words, or judging me for reading these words, and I like that I'm worried because that means that words still have power, but I know that no one walking in the door has read any of the words so far. People don't seem to read words anymore. Or at least most people don't seem to read words. It's almost like they block words out. A subconscious part of their mind recognizes the words and before the conscious part begins to read the words, the subconscious part tells the eyes to stop taking in the information. That's how it seems.

There are four minutes left before I have to leave. I'm going to stop writing now, and start getting ready to leave.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

LA PERDIDA, by Jessica Abel

I got about thirty pages into this graphic novel, and felt so irritated with it that I put it aside for weeks. I was planning on returning it to the library unfinished, but before I got around to that, I ran out of things to read, and picked it up again. I'd originally been turned away by the characters (all of them struck me as unsympathetic) and the level of narration (which felt excessive to me, and poorly matched by the illustration; you hardly even need to look at the pictures to read this comic, which strikes me as a poor use of the form). The protagonist, Carlita Olivares, in particular soured my mood; she's a naive American eager to embrace the "exotic" culture of Mexico City, and she reminded me of a lot of the travellers I encountered during my time living abroad--people so enamored with preconceived notions that they end up being blinded to the individuality of the locals, and the particulars of the place.

When I picked it up the second time, and got farther in, I started to appreciate it more. Carla never really endeared herself to me, but the plot develops directly from her personality, and ends up telling a unique, compelling story. (The other characters, likewise unlikeable, also feel very well-rounded.) It turns out that Carla's naivete and desire to embrace the "exotic" are the very reason the story can happen. Her inability to open her eyes to the nature of the people she relates with, her tendency to filter the world through romanticized images, puts her in the position of being taken advantage of by certain lowlife individuals. You never end up feeling sorry for her, but that doesn't keep her disaster from being really interesting.

The story ends up bringing the reader into a place we couldn't have foreseen, a rather nefarious place with serious consequences. We might not have predicted the way the plot developes, but it's hard to doubt the plausability of it.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Selling your soul to the pen

I've had another couple hours with POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS, and I'm about halfway through it now, and I just finished reading the story "Locket Out." The story includes an account of Burroughs' escaping from alcoholism by giving himself over to writing. Taken from the text:

"I just sat down. And I wrote. Silly. It made me laugh. I hadn't laughed for a year. I kept writing. I wrote until seven that evening. Then I drank. But I never reached my Place. Instead, I thought about what I'd written during the day. I went to bed. The next day, I wrote more. I started drinking later in the evening and I drank less. By the third day, I wrote until midnight and I didn't drink anything at all except lime seltzer water. By the seventh day I had written a book."

Reading that passage filled me with so much excitement, so much nervous energy and desire, that I had to put the book down. For more than a decade I've been longing to have the time to write, to seriously write and produce work and shout my thoughts out into the bedlam of the world. And yet things always seem to get in the way. Sometimes those things relate to my own shortcomings, my lack of discipline, my depression. Usually those things are intrusions from the outside world, and demands placed upon me by living in it (getting rent money together is an obvious, and recurrent demand) that I can't seem to escape from. Right now, for example, I'm at work. I'll be at work until 5, then I'll ride my bicycle home. Within an hour of my arrival my girlfriend will be there, and when she's home I don't like the idea of neglecting her, ignoring her and huddling up against the computer screen. So I probably won't spend much time writing, and the whole time I'm writing I'll be distracted. Tomorrow morning I'll get up at 7 to get to work by 8, and I'll be there until 5. The cycle continues.

It's incredibly frustrating to me. What I want to do is write. What I'm driven to do and tortured by my failure to do is write. And yet I can barely manage to squeeze together a few pitiful hours a week for writing, and those hours are plagued with distraction and despair and all the trauma carried over from my work week. I have to give the bulk of my life over to something I despise (work) and I barely get to scrape together a few spare moments to do what I really want to do. It makes me want to smash my face against this cubicle desk, and drag my fingernails across my neck.

It brings to mind Virginia Woolf's essay "A Room Of One's Own." It also makes me think of POST OFFICE, by Bukowski, where he includes an account similar to the above by Burroughs. In Bukowski's account he's drinking continually, while Burroughs finds an escape from drinking through writing, but in both situations the author throws himself wholeheartedly into his work, goes through a marathon period of writing, and comes out at the end of a relatively short period with an intact novel. Come to think of it, it makes me think of Kerouac writing ON THE ROAD.

The above picture, by the way, was taken by David Shankbone. I don't know who he is, but he's allowing this picture to be freely copied and distributed, so I wanted to give him credit.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


I'm reading two books right now, Noam Chomsky's WHAT UNCLE SAM REALLY WANTS and Augusten Burroughs' POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS. It's taken me upwards of six hours to get to page 78 in the Chomsky book, while I've hit page 40 in about an hour in Burroughs book. The Chomsky book has text that appears simple, but is so chock full of information that it overloads the brain. It's hard to get through a single paragraph without losing my train of thought. The Burroughs book is the opposite. You could probably read this book while simultaneously watching a movie and conducting a telephone interview with CNN. Burroughs writes in a very simple, easily-digesteted way; the equivalent of literary soup--no chewing required. Chomsky's writing, on the other hand, is so dense it's nearly inedible; I know that my eyes are reading lots of things that never actually find their way to my mind. (And the text in the Chomsky book is taken from his speeches, specifically for the purpose of making his ideas more accessible.)

Basically, Chomsky's book tries to portray the world as ravaged by U.S. violence. He goes on and on describing how U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Korea, Central America (especially El Salvador and Nicaragua), the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and South America (especially Brazil) has amounted to overt terrorism. He claims that the United States has been engaged in brutalizing the rest of the world since its initial rise to super-power status, in World War 2. He says the U.S. destroyed post-WW2 social movements in Italy and Greece, murdered the leaders of those movements and much of the civilian populace, and re-instated the very same fascists it had helped depose during the war--all of this for the sake of keeping the rich elite in power and holding everyone else under thumb. It almost sounds like far-out fiction, but Chomsky is a scholar who relentlessly protects his statements with an armor of facts. (Even so, I think his portrayal of the situation is simplified; by focusing exclusively on the atrocities committed it gives the idea of the world outside of US borders as a veritable hell on earth, which it isn't).

Burroughs' book, on the other hand, seems to be mostly aimed at getting people to love him. It reads like a desperate cry for affection and acceptance, chock full of endearing quirkiness and self-deprecating humor. Every story is about him and his life, the wacky situations he finds himself in. He comes across like a middle-aged, love-hungry, stay-at-home housewife. And despite the abundent quirkiness, it's not really that funny. It is just amusing enough to keep you turning the pages, and because it demands so little of your mind, turning those pages is just as easy as not turning them. This is true escape writing, an easy way to plug your mind in somewhere else when you don't want to pay attention to the world around you.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


I picked this slim pamphlet up after watching "Manufacturing Consent," the 1992 documentary about Noam Chomsky and his theories on the mainstream media's manipulation of the American public. Like the documentary, this book presents several viewpoints that clash with commonly-held ideas. The particular focus of ACTS OF AGGRESSION is U.S policy with Iraq leading up to the 1991 bombing (known as the Gulf War), and U.S. policy with Iraq following that action (but preceding our current situation; this pamphlet was published in 1999).

One of the principle ideas behind Chomsky's examination of U.S.-Iraq policy is this: the U.S. government controls the American people by keeping them frightened. During the time following World War 2, Communism and the Cold War were the threat used to inspire that fear (JFK described it as a "monolithic and ruthless conspiracy;" Reagan named it "the evil empire."). With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. government needed a new enemy, and so it developed the concept of "Rogue States." Iraq was chosen as one of them.

Perhaps the most impactful aspect of this pamphlet are the statistics it offers regarding the effects that U.S. policy has had on the Iraqi people. Chomsky includes findings of U.N. Investigations: 567,000 deaths by 1995, and an additional 4,500 children dying each month in 1996, mostly due to disease and malnutrition brought about by the U.S. embargo of Iraq. I don't remember seeing that number in the American news during that time. In the pamphlet's appendix, written by Ramsey Clark, the total number of deaths is put at more than 1,500,000. I shudder to think how much that body count has grown due to our current actions.

(Another stunning statistic included in Clark's piece, though on a different topic: 40 percent of all African-American males between the ages of 17 and 27 in the state of California were in prison when he wrote his piece. That's nearly every other young black man.)

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

PADDLEFISH #1, Mount Marty College

In the newest AWP Writer's Chronicle there's a call for submissions for PADDLEFISH, the Mount Marty College literary journal. I went to their site to check it out, and it mentions on the home page that more than 1,800 submissions were received for the first issue, which came out last year. That's a lot of submissions for a magazine that hadn't published a single issue, and therefor had no public evidence of the editor's taste. It's also a lot of submissions for a Catholic, Benedictine college with a total student enrollment of 1,100. Just more evidence of how extreme competition in the literary field can be.