50 Books: On Being Blue by William Gass

William Gass as photographed by Herb Weitman

Today I read an email—from a smart guy who was clearly a top-decile writer of English—that contained a parenthetical aside inside a parenthetical aside. Neither interruption improved my understanding of the sentence or my assessment of the person who wrote it, but I sympathized. The urge to add one more layer has overcome us all. Probably it is more likely to overcome those of us who have a knack for writing sentences. Nuances occur to us and we try to pack them in, for the same reason we overfill the tacos we make at home, until anyone else who tries to eat them winds up with a mess running down the back of their hand. The mess in this analogy is, uh, implications lost to unclear syntax. The filling falling out of the back of a taco is the failure of reading comprehension, whose rate increases with complexity until the audience for a given sentence shrinks to one. I am sorry for the inscrutable metaphor, but I had so much meaning for you to savor and I wanted to pack it all in there, until the tortilla just split apart.

How we put meaning into English sentences—or rather how it enters the reader’s mind unbidden, particularly overtones of sexuality related to color—is the subject of William Gass’s On Being Blue, which is billed as “a philosophical inquiry.” It is that. It is also a tour de force, partly because form follows function and partly because, it would seem, Gass really enjoys writing. That’s the gist of his surprisingly affecting closing argument, which is that [SPOILER ALERT] you’re going to die soon, so you should write as much as possible. He does not explicitly advocate this kind of maximalism until the end of the book, but he tacitly endorses it along the way through maximalism of other kinds.

On Being Blue is hard to read. Despite his argument that the function of the writer is to create, via sentences, a consciousness for the reader to experience, a lot of Gass’s sentences demand we step away for a second to figure them out. I often read before bed, but I found that I could only comprehend this book in daylight. My approach was to read a sentence, think about what it meant, and then read it again to check my work. The distance this method imposed was compounded by the fact that I was re-reading; I first read On Being Blue about five years ago and, I realized with growing horror, remembered very little from the first time through. Instead of recognizing old twists and turns, I found the book to be like a hedge maze that, embarrassingly, I was lost in for a second time. The flaw in this analogy is that you cannot step up into the air and consider the hedge maze from above, whereas I kept removing myself from the flow of Gass’s argument to puzzle out what he just said.

This thicket of language is the right way for Gass to expound his theories of connotation and how the sentence says what it does not state. Most failures of comprehension were my fault. Occasionally, though, I was taken by the uncharitable suspicion that he was being intentionally abstruse. Take this paragraph from page 73, where Gass is discussing the changing significances of blue over time:

Seldom was blue for blue’s sake present till Pollock hurled pigment at his canvas like pies. Rarer still, since such sensitivity in the brush tip is a rarity (in the penis rarer, in the poet rarest of all), color became the breath of bodies, every hue the aching limit of a life, as if it rose up from within the substance it covered the way feeling changes the color of the chameleon, or like those remarkable cephalopods whose configurations alter with their moods, or as, inadequately, our own blood comes and goes like sunshine dreaming among moving clouds.

Emphasis added, and bro: you’re thinking of an octopus. That’s the remarkable cephalopod whose configuration alters with its mood. If you were to use this term that every child knows, you would admittedly lose some elucidation of meaning but also shave off one euphemism and two subclauses from what is already a very cumbersome sentence. I’m willing to do the work, but don’t make me jump through hoops to prove how cunningly you make them.

Clearly, this kind of maximalism is a choice. The question is whether it is necessary, which is a polite way of asking whether it’s performative. Maybe that parenthetical about penises and poets is necessary to unify perceived color with subconscious sexual desire and the artist’s craft, which is an important part of Gass’s overarching thesis that “blue” material enters into language through color and metaphor. Or maybe he made the connection and couldn’t resist pointing it out, i.e. telling us that he did.

That may be the real inquiry at hand in On Being Blue. Where does sophistication shade over into demonstration? When does the parenthetical not add another shade of meaning but rather indicate, as my high school English teacher said it did, a part the author knew he should leave out but lacked the discipline to cut?

Gass makes a compelling argument that there is another type of discipline: the type that leaves everything in, overfilling the taco but doing it so skillfully that nothing falls out. On Being Blue is proof it can be done, but I still wouldn’t eat it in the car, so to speak. It’s thrilling for that reason, though, and in its insistence on radical density it becomes a kind of manifesto. Part of maximalism is doing what is not strictly necessary, and in writing that is usually synonymous with failure. Paradoxically, it is also the precondition for success.

50 Books in 2018 is a recurring feature. Next on our reading list: A Bad Man by Stanley Elkin

Why can’t the City of Missoula keep a secret?

Photo via Engen for Missoula

Remember when Mayor John Engen sent an open letter to Missoula telling us all he would run for re-election and had won his battle with alcoholism? The election part was not a surprise. We had not known he was an alcoholic, though. Nor had we known that for the past 28 days, an interim mayor had been running the city while he was at an inpatient alcohol treatment program. When he disappeared, communications Director Ginny Merriam told the Missoulian that he was away for unspecified medical reasons. Asked when he would come back, she said “we don’t know. You never know. But in this case you do know because, I repeat, 28-day inpatient alcohol treatment program. Anyway, the point is that the mayor is back and alcohol no longer interferes with the functioning of his life, as it apparently did for an unspecified time.

I mention this hoary tale from 2016 because this year, on December 20, the City of Missoula informed city councillors that it had corrected the $3 million accounting error it discovered six weeks ago and hadn’t told us about until now. They thought they had $4.2 million in their rainy-day fund, but it turns out to be only $600,000. Coincidentally, they discovered it one day before the 2017 mayoral election. Anyway, the point is that this accounting error has been corrected, so nobody needs to worry about it now.

As my dad used to say, once is a mistake and twice is a pattern. He also used to say terrible, biological things about city governments everywhere, and I’m starting to think he was right. The City of Missoula obviously has a problem: it can’t keep a secret for more than six weeks. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent, in which I put forth the thought experiment known as Schrödinger’s Town, where everyone is happy because we have no idea what’s happening.

50 Books in 2018: Death Wish

Charles Bronson, star of the 1974 film

Maybe the hardest thing to believe in the movie version of Death Wish is that Charles Bronson is an architect. The protagonist of Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel is an accountant. The natural advantage of the novel lies in rendering interiority, and interiority is where Garfield’s book lives. Most of the film Death Wish is Bronson shooting muggers and avoiding detection by the police. In the novel, Paul does not kill until the last 50 pages or so. In the meantime, he experiences himself losing his mind.

After his wife and daughter are attacked by teenage hoodlums—fatally, for his wife, and so traumatically for his daughter that she slips into catatonia—Paul Benjamin is profoundly alone. A lifelong liberal, he finds himself brooding on crime and punishment in his empty apartment. At rare dinner parties or during more frequent conversations with his coworkers and son-in-law, he gets in arguments, finding that the prevailing consensus on New York City in the 1970s—that crime is a social disease rather than the responsibility of individual criminals, who would be better citizens under better economic conditions—suddenly enrages him. This transformation in his thinking reflects the adage that a Republican is a Democrat who has been mugged. Paul expresses a variation on this idea to his son-in-law, a left-leaning attorney who is comparably bereaved but nonetheless horrified by the change in Paul’s beliefs.

This difference in how Paul and Jack react to the same crime engages the fundamental theme of the story. Death Wish has been called a meditation on fascism, and that reading certainly stands up. Paul’s progress from urbane CPA to night-stalking murderer reminds us that fascism lies adjacent to the upper middle class. Invariably, it’s the rich who implement actual fascist government, but it’s the professionals and small business owners who support it. This reading concludes that what people think of as their deeply held political beliefs are actually products of their circumstances. Paul turns out to be one violent crime away from pursuing the death penalty for muggers. His friends, who sympathize with his tragedy but haven’t experienced it themselves, remain righteous liberals.

But Jack does experience the same tragedy, and it does not turn him into a right-wing vigilante the way it does Paul. Here lies the counterpoint. If people’s political views are merely the product of their circumstances, why doesn’t Jack go off the deep end, too? The difference between his and Paul’s reactions suggest that the individual is responsible for his own political views—and, by extension, his choices—after all. Applied as a universal principle, however, this idea is the one Paul disastrously fails to resist. He kills because he embraces an ethic of individual responsibility and takes it too far. The muggers and car thieves he guns down on the streets of New York are not absolved of their crimes by circumstance or broad socioeconomic theories. In the end, each is responsible for the crimes he commits.

The tension between forgiveness and responsibility, broad trends and individual choices, is what powers the novel. Paul gives in to the violent urges that dominate his thinking after his wife’s death, even as he consciously turns against a society that forgives criminals for giving in to the violent urges it instills in them. Paul should be a thoughtful man. He should be able to process his own suffering without taking it out on others. He turns out to be as much an animal as anybody else in 1970s New York, albeit with stronger fan support among the police.

The detail of this novel—both in its narration of Paul’s unraveling and in its oddly close look at accounting—make it a more satisfying experience than the film (which, for the record, I also liked.) Death Wish the Book also gets high marks for its authentic portrayal of violence. Paul is scared and acting blindly during pretty much every action scene, and his first confrontation with a teenage mugger is among the most accurate depictions of street violence I’ve read. The pace is slow at the beginning and hurtling by the end, which gives the reader just enough time to consider the themes without getting sick of them.

Death Wish loses points for giving all of its characters bland, interchangeable names: Paul, Jack, Sam, Henry, Bill, George. A comical number of these people’s last names are also first names, so that everyone except Paul and his son-in-law fades into a uniform paste of dudes. Maybe this effect is intentional, but I found it irritating. This half-assed naming is probably the fault of Garfield’s virtues as a pulp writer, however, and its flip side is brisk plotting and a lean story. Take three days to read this one and three weeks to think about it.

50 Books in 2018 is a recurring feature. Next I’m reading On Being Blue by William Gass.

Whither Combat! blog in 2018?

Combat! blog (artist’s conception)

Loyal readers—i.e. Attempt—may have noticed that there has been very little Combat! blog for the last few weeks. I started this blog in 2008, shortly before I became a full-time freelance writer. It began as a practice; I didn’t always have enough work to fill eight hours, and when I did it was often tedious or uncreative. The blog let me start each day with a couple hours of writing that was interesting to me. Ten years later, my practice has changed. I get to do a lot more interesting work that is just as satisfying to me as writing this blog, and the tedious stuff is so remunerative that I would be irresponsible to turn it down so I could blog for free. The original purpose of Combat! was to make me exercise my craft every day. Now my career does that for me.

For example, I’m in the Outline today, writing about the moment when 2017 convinced me that we’re really doing this. Until Sean Spicer took the stage at the Emmys, he was known primarily as the White House press secretary who told outlandish lies, poorly, until he got fired. He took a job amplifying a mendacious president but couldn’t pull it off, stammering and losing his temper during press conferences until they finally replaced him with Mike Huckabee’s daughter. Spicer was bad both ethically and professionally, an incompetent who tried to sell his soul but couldn’t get the market price. When Colbert brought him onstage, though, Hollywood received him as a fun reference. He was a get; the joke was that they convinced him to come on. In this moment, the chief satirist of our age became a quisling. The former truth-teller acted like lying was just this fun thing we do at our jobs, and the audience went along with him.

That’s a corrupt politics exploiting a decadent society, right there. Three months later, Republicans in Congress passed a package of tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, and Spicer’s old boss signed it. The reasoning behind this decision is baffling. How could you look at a record Dow, inequality between investors and working people at levels not seen since the Gilded Age, and wages that have stagnated for four decades and decide that we need to make things easier for corporations and the rich? They are the only entities winning an increasingly broken economy. It’s tempting to say that’s why the GOP made cutting their taxes its number-one priority; the Republican Party serves the rich not in spite of their success but because of it. They’re bought off. But I think the answer is more nuanced. Of Montana’s three representatives in Congress, two are multimillionaires. Greg Gianforte, the richest man in the US House, hasn’t worked for a company he didn’t own since 1986. Steve Daines quit his job in 2012, two years before he reported a net worth between $9 million and $32 million. In their daily lives, how often do these men meet Americans who get paid by the hour, or even by the year? They are members of the investor class who live among members of the investor class. When they think about what Americans are like, how they suffer and what they need, they do not think of Americans with jobs. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent.

I’ve been working, is what I’m saying here. The last three weeks of silence on Combat! blog haven’t been because I lost the will to write; on the contrary, I’ve brought in an extra year of writing income since Labor Day. All my time has been bought up, which is a great problem to have. It is still a problem for this blog, though, and for the novel whose first draft I finished last year and have not revised. If I had spent two hours each weekday redrafting, that thing would be accumulating polite rejection letters right now. As much as I have loved Combat! blog, and as much good as it has done for my craft and my career, it has become the least productive way I can spend two hours most days.

So I am going to change the nature of this blog in 2018. I’m not going to shut it down or anything, but I am going to allocate my two selfish/unprofitable hours each day to novel revisions. Here, I’ll keep posting links to work I’ve published elsewhere, and I’ll keep posting the weird stuff I can’t trick anyone into buying. I also plan to do some recurring features, such as my (potentially insane) plan to finish 50 books in 2018. I’m currently reading Death Wish by Brian Garfield, the novel that inspired the infamous Charles Bronson film, if you want to get in on that. What I’m not going to do, though, are daily updates. I have loved doing them for the last decade, but it’s not the best way for me to spend my time anymore.

Thank you for reading this post. Thank you for reading a handful or posts or hundreds of them. The best part of this blog is the small but select number of people who read it. I’m sorry that we can’t be roommates anymore, but I hope we can still be friends.

Art Wittich: Person?

Former MT legislator Art Wittich peruses the latest issue of Glower magazine.

It’s been a while since Art Wittich has made stories in Montana politics, meaning that it’s been a while by his standards. Aside from his tractionless campaign to fire the dean of the UM journalism school, Wittich has been quiet since August, when the state supreme court upheld a jury’s finding that he had, in fact, violated campaign finance laws during the 2010 primaries. That accusation has been one of the longest-running stories in Montana politics. It intersected with several other Wittich narratives—his tenure as head of the Health and Human Services Committee, during which he invited state employees to present personal anecdotes of welfare fraud; leaked emails detailing his plans to “purge” the state GOP of perceived moderates; the time he filed for election in the wrong district in a way that allowed him to re-file, after the deadline, in a district where he could run unopposed—and, after Commissioner of Political Practices Jonthan Motl filed charges in 2014, tied them all together. The Wittich investigation was a symbol. His malfeasance happened at a time when Montana’s campaign finance laws were under siege from Citizens United and a legion of dark money groups, including National Right to Work, the anti-union organization from whom he was eventually found to have accepted illegal contributions.

The state fined him a little more than $68,000 for that one. As appeals wore on and he refused to admit wrongdoing—he has insisted, from the beginning, that the charges were political—Motl pushed for him to be removed from office, but the 2016 election obviated that. Wittich lost his bid in the primary, and like that, his political career was over. He went from senate majority leader to private-practice lawyer in less than five years. Now, the Montana Office of Disciplinary Counsel wants to have him disbarred. Chief Disciplinary Counsel Michael Cotter has filed a complaint arguing that Wittich’s violations in 2010 constitute professional misconduct, and he shouldn’t be allowed to practice law.

The legal argument for that is beyond my ken. It centers on the statute of limitations and questions of what remedies Montana’s campaign finance laws allow. But I think there is an ethical question at work here, too. Wittich no longer threatens Montana politics. His faction of the internecine war within the GOP was thoroughly routed, and he shows no sign of returning to the legislature anytime soon. For whose benefit would we punish him? Disbarring him might protect the unsuspecting legal clients of Bozeman, but it seems more like a plan to humiliate a public figure who has already been thoroughly vanquished. That’s not our best selves. If we want to feel smug, we might consider how he feels about his precipitous fall from grace. You can read all about it in this week’s column in the Missoula Independent.