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.

Links! Literary greatness/failure edition

It’s Friday, which means the cognitive dissonance of having to work at a job you dislike—in order to pay rent on an apartment of which you are ashamed so that you can have enough money left over to buy products that only make you feel more empty—has probably reached such a shrieking pitch that you will spend the next four hours listlessly clicking at the internet just to numb yourself enough to forget the passage of time until six o’clock. TGIF, right guys? Me, I work in a closet. Even the most elementary theories of social justice dictate that I ease your pain somehow, so here are a bunch of links for you to stab at between coffee breaks, Facebook updates and specious trips to the bathroom.

But first, exciting news! Those of you who can hear my voice in forms other than Arial 80% gray know my frustration at certain limitations to Combat! blog engendered by the iWeb platform, not the least of which is our inability to participate in Digg or appear on Google. Starting this weekend—assuming I can execute a series of completely baffling technical maneuvers involving remote server configuration and jerry-rigged html conversions that I am in no way qualified to do—Combat! blog will become an independently-hosted site running on the WordPress platform. We’ll still be at www.combatblog.net, and changes to the site will be minimal. The formatting will look different and it will probably take me a while to figure out how to execute in WordPress the stunning graphic designs loyal Combat! readers have come to expect,* but we’ll also get ShareThis buttons and Google analytics and maybe, just maybe, more readers. Cross your fingers.

Now uncross your fingers and check out this review of the new Collected Stories of Raymond Carver, which will apparently include unedited versions of stories from the What We Talk About When We Talk About Love era. Those of you who are way, way too into creative writing probably know that Carver’s ultra-minimalist style—which is A) awesome and B) ruining graduate fiction workshops across America—has been increasingly attributed to his editor, Gordon Lish. Lish cut Carver’s stories mercilessly, particularly for What We Talk About, and in so doing contributed to one of the most distinct prose voices in contemporary literature. “Created” is another term bandied about, although that strikes me as playa hatin’. Whether the crediting of Lish at the expense of Carver is an example of overdue justice or of a critical culture jealously opposed to the notion of the author is for y’all to decide. Try not to be swayed by the knowledge that literature M.A.’s are complete tools.

Mistah Carver also makes an appearance in this article about literary drinkers and whether ending a destructive cycle of alcoholism is, like, good. The author, who is most definitely shilling for his book, makes the interesting argument that the value of authorial drinking varies with style. For Cheever and Carver, getting off the sauce seemed to help—for John Berryman and Steven King, not so much. Poets and guys who write really long sentence should apparently keep pounding whiskey.

On the lighter side of substance abuse, here’s an article about a homeless community under a bridge in Providence, Rhode Island that has a written compact governing its operation.* The organization of their mini-society is both communitarian—that’s why you guys are homeless! you’ve created a culture that doesn’t value individual initiative!—and eerily biblical, including a gay couple that lives “near some rocks where men go to urinate.” It’s an interesting read if you can get past the prose, which is a monument to Dan Barry’s writing really, really hard.

Finally, The Cure points out that I wasn’t the only person to to justify my use of advanced media technology to say the word “faggot” yesterday. Hawaii football coach Greg McMackin apologized for his description of a performance by Notre Dame as a “faggot dance.” You’re right—it doesn’t seem as rakishly funny when someone else does it.

“Suds summit” to end, generate very dumb news stories

In an effort to mitigate the fallout over his assertion that the arrest of Henry Louis Gates was “stupid,” President Obama will have a beer with Gates and arresting officer Sgt. James Crowley this afternoon, in what mindless newspaper hacks are calling the Suds Summit. See, when the President meets with someone in an official capacity, it’s often called a summit. And they’ll be drinking beer, so we should probably—Jimmy! Jimmy, what’s a word for beer that starts with S? “Suds Summit.” Man, that’s rich. You’re the king, Jimmy.

Sorry—I kind of blacked out on hate, there. Seriously, though, the President and Henry Louis Gates and the cop who arrested Henry Louis Gates are going to drink beers together and work this thing out, which sounded absurd to me until I realized that that’s how I solve all of my interpersonal problems, too. The Los Angeles Times justifies its existence with this report on what each participant will be drinking: Red Stripe for Gates, Blue Moon for Crowley, and for the leader of the most powerful nation on earth not currently overrun with Chinese people, Bud Light.

Two things strike me here. First, when you’re brokering a make-up session between two guys who got in a stupid argument and you ask them what kind of beer they like, and one of them says “Red Stripe!” and the other says “Blue Moon!” you say, “Well, you assholes are getting Bud Light, because it’s my house.” You don’t buy three different kinds of beer for a party that you know will only be attended by three dudes, one of whom is a cop.

Second, there is no way that the President’s favorite beer is Bud Lite. I believe that Henry Louis Gates likes Red Stripe, although it seems a little affected. Red Stripe was, for many years, my favorite beer, too. I’m sure it seemed even more affected when I drank it, but it is totally delicious and the short necks make it virtually impossible to hit anyone with the empty bottle—hence its ubiquity and the ska and punk shows of my youth. I also believe that James Crowley drinks Blue Moon, when logistics prevent him from drinking Jameson directly out of the bottle while watching a train pass by the front of his squad car as he thinks about his custody settlement. I refuse, however, to accept that President Barack Obama, when considering all the beers in the world that he would most like to drink, settled on Bud Light. There are three reasons why the story seems implausible:

1) Bud Light tastes like the hair near the genital area of a very old dog.
2) Of the people you know who drink Bud Light, how many of them are A) black dudes or B) Harvard graduates or C) Presidents?
3) Of all the beers I could think of, Bud Light seems the least assailable.

You might think that Budweiser would have been the safest choice, but that is also the favored beer of people who have never tasted beer. Bud Light implies that the President has made his selection from among at least two American beers. That his choice should be domestic goes without saying; one can only imagine what today’s 24-hour news cycle would be like had he said his favorite beer was Heineken. As it stands, Barack Obama will sit out back of the White House this afternoon and drink a beer—something that I think we can all agree is, in the variety of human experience, pretty fucking cool. When he gets to live out this fantasy, though, he will have to do it while drinking a Bud Light. Perhaps he can prevail on Gates to let him try a Red Stripe. If he cannot, though, he will have to suffer the retribution owed to a very mild act of dishonesty. As is often the case when we lie, the punishment fits exactly the crime.